School talks break down

Unions and board disagree on contracts

Meeting with mediator

Goal to have agreement in place for 1st paychecks

Carroll County

August 07, 2002|By Jennifer McMenamin | Jennifer McMenamin,SUN STAFF

Six months after they first sat down at the bargaining table to hammer out pay raises and other contract issues, negotiators for the Carroll County school board are at an impasse with three of the school system's five employee unions.

School officials will present the school board with suggestions next week from the mediator working to resolve the standoff between the board and the 1,400-member teachers union. The board is headed to mediation with the two unions representing the school system's 500 secretaries, clerks, nurses and instructional assistants, as well as the district's 140 administrators and supervisors.

With the first day of school less than three weeks away and teachers threatening to "work to contract" - they would work only the hours for which they are paid and decline assignments they often do without extra pay - both sides are eager to resolve the situation.

"It's always better to work with a contract, of course," said Cindy Wheeler, president of the Carroll County Education Association, the teachers union. "But I don't know that it will be resolved by the start of school."

The school board won't meet to discuss the results of mediation until Aug. 14, and teachers report to work Aug. 19. At the earliest, Wheeler said, the union could distribute a contract proposal to its members for ratification the week teachers return to school.

The school board is aiming to have a contract agreement ratified and signed with CCEA so that any pay raise could be included in the first paychecks teachers receive this year.

"It's aggressive, I know, but our goal is to get things all finished so teachers get the results of the mediation in their paychecks on the 30th," said Stephen Guthrie, one of the school board's chief negotiators and the system's assistant superintendent for administration.

The school board reached tentative agreements this spring with four of five bargaining units that would have increased salaries 3 percent for each of the next two years, while requiring employees to pay more of ballooning health care costs and limiting the number of sick days they could cash out at retirement.

But the board backed away from those tentative agreements in June, when it was forced to cut its proposed spending plan to align it with county budget allocations. Board members voted to eliminate all but about $2.7 million of the $6.6 million that had been set aside for raises. Instead, board members poured about $2.6 million into new staff and programs to finalize their $206.9 million budget for the fiscal year that began July 1.

A month later, board members honored their tentative contract agreement with the system's 290 maintenance staff, custodians and bus drivers, who are represented by the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees. AFSCME negotiators, they explained, were the only ones to meet the superintendent's deadline to have contracts negotiated by the Feb. 27 budget hearing.

The food services workers' contract was not affected by the board's budget cuts because its funding is not dependent on county allocations.

After a round of renegotiations, the teachers union and the Carroll Association of School Employees, which represents school support staff, refused the school board's second offer, and state schools Superintendent Nancy S. Grasmick declared an impasse between both groups and the school board. She declared an impasse between the board and the administrators and supervisors' union this week.

Negotiators for the teachers union and the school board met with Washington mediator Seymour Strongin for seven hours last week. He will meet with board representatives and CASE negotiators Aug. 22.

"Although I don't have a formal agreement to take to the board, we have worked out something [with the teachers union] that I'm going to present to them and we'll discuss the results of our mediation," Guthrie said. "Then I'll take the feedback from the board to our mediator and at that point, hopefully, we can go forward with an agreement. Once that happens, if that happens, CCEA would go for ratification from their membership."

If the board or the teachers union do not ratify an agreement, Strongin would return as an arbitrator and offer the board his findings and recommendations. Board members then could select from among Strongin's suggestions, add theirs and impose the settlement they want.

If that happens, the result would be disastrous, said Hal Fox, who represents CASE and the teachers union.

"Both sides, I would say, are seriously looking for a way to resolve this dilemma peacefully," he said, "because if the board imposes [a contract agreement], the already seriously damaged morale in our system will become so much worse."

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