Just two months after the school board and teachers union reached agreement on a contract and even as some teachers at 12 Carroll County schools continue a work-to-rule job protest over pay and workload, both sides are gearing up for a new round of negotiations.
With salaries and benefits locked in for the next two years, school board members are to appoint bargaining teams today to go back to the table and turn their attention to issues that are not compensation-related - a litany of potential topics that was greatly expanded this year by a collective bargaining bill passed in the spring and signed by Gov. Parris N. Glendening.
The law gave teachers unions more say in such education-related matters as job transfers, curriculum selection, school security and teacher training. The legislation essentially eliminated a category of "illegal" issues that unions were not allowed to touch and replaced it with a new "permissive" grouping that allows local teachers unions and school boards to grapple with most school issues during contract talks, as long as both sides agree to put it on the bargaining table.
"The good thing about this year is that having come to agreement on our financial issues, we can really focus on these school improvement issues," said Hal Fox, a representative of the Carroll County Education Association, the local teachers union. "We can really establish a good dialogue with the school board that will help us reverse this spiral that's taken place over the last few months."
That spiral helped lead the union to endorse the opponents of incumbent school board members C. Scott Stone and Gary W. Bauer during their campaigns for re-election and school board President Susan W. Krebs in her bid for a newly created House of Delegates seat in South Carroll. (All three were elected last week.)
The souring of relations also has prompted the job action at a dozen county schools where some teachers are working more closely to the terms of their contracts and boycotting extracurricular activities for which they are not paid. A task force of teachers and administrators has recommended 47 ways to improve working conditions in Carroll public schools, and Superintendent Charles I. Ecker is expected to respond to the panel's suggestions by Tuesday.
School board members are expected to return to a prickly topic today when they resurrect their debate over moving contract negotiations into open meetings - a suggestion that union officials hotly protested in June.
Then, board member Stone's attempt to end the panel's five-year practice of negotiating employee contracts behind closed doors narrowly failed, 2-2, after members Susan Holt and Bauer decided against changing the rules in the midst of bargaining.
Holt said in June that she would support public bargaining in the future but not to renegotiate contracts that remained unresolved at the time. Attempts to reach her for comment this week were unsuccessful.
Board member Thomas G. Hiltz, who did not attend the June meeting when the board debated the issue, said he has not made up his mind.
"I think the goal of negotiations, if the process told me anything this last time, is that we need better communication," he said. "But I'm not convinced the answer to that is to just open negotiations. I look forward to hearing ... the pros and cons of having open negotiations."
Proponents of open negotiations say the practice allows the public - and school board members - unfiltered access to labor talks and limits the rumors and half-truths that tend to arise when are hammered out behind closed doors.
Opponents argue that opening the process would prompt negotiators to play to their constituents and lock into positions rather than explore options that they might not feel comfortable discussing in public.
Teachers contract negotiations in Carroll were open from the 1980s until 1997, but have since been conducted in private. Union leaders say they know of no other school system in Maryland that conducts negotiations in open meetings.
Negotiators for the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, which represents maintenance workers, custodians and bus drivers in the Carroll school system, also will return to the bargaining table to renegotiate nonsalary issues. AFSCME employees are not covered by the new collective-bargaining law, which broadened negotiating power only for teachers. Their contract allows them to return to the table.
Stephen Guthrie, the school system's assistant superintendent for administration and one of the school board's chief negotiators, said he would like to schedule a preliminary meeting with the teachers union before the winter holidays, although Fox said the first meeting likely won't occur until January.
"We'll put out on the table what we want to bargain and they'll put out on the table what they want to bargain, and then together we'll decide whether those are things we want to negotiate," Guthrie said. "This process has to be tested out. It's a trial year for this new bargaining law."
Contracts for the school system's other three unions - the Carroll Association of School Employees, which includes nurses, secretaries and support staff, the bargaining unit for administrators and supervisors, along with the food services employees union - run through June 2004. Negotiations for those groups as well as salary talks for AFSCME and the teachers union will resume late next year.