Less than 18 months after contract agreements ended the most contentious round of bargaining in years between the Carroll school board and five unions representing 3,200 employees, negotiators are gearing up for a fresh round of talks.
Mindful of bitter bargaining that stretched past the contracts' expiration date last year, union and school board negotiators have tried to leave plenty of time to reach agreements by next year's June 30 deadline. The local teachers union, the largest of the five labor groups, is scheduled to begin bargaining in two weeks, and negotiations with the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees started last month.
During the last round of negotiations, three bargaining groups went to impasse and signed retroactive agreements that left many employees feeling sour and many teachers boycotting after-school activities for which they are not paid.
The work-to-rule job action involved the staffs of 12 Carroll schools and some instructors at many of the county's 25 other schools before the protest tapered off late last year.
Union and school system negotiators say they are hopeful that the last bargaining cycle will not taint this one.
"I hope it will have no effect," said Stephen Guthrie, an assistant superintendent and one of the school board's chief negotiators. "I hope we've gone beyond the issues that hung us up."
Board negotiators are scheduled to meet Dec. 15 with the bargaining team for the school system's largest union, the 2,030-member Carroll County Education Association, which represents teachers, media specialists, guidance counselors and registered nurses.
The opening bargaining session for the Carroll Association of School Employees (CASE), representing more than 500 secretaries, instructional assistants and licensed practical nurses, is scheduled in January.
And representatives of AFSCME, which represents 325 maintenance workers, custodians and bus drivers in the school system, began meeting with school board negotiators in the middle of last month.
Unions representing Carroll's 150 principals, psychologists and department supervisors and the system's 175 food service workers have not scheduled opening sessions.
"The issue is going to be money-related," Guthrie said. "That's always the biggest issue."
What is shaping up to be another tight budget year could get a lot worse, Guthrie said, if the governor and Maryland lawmakers don't find a way to fully fund the Thornton education legislation passed last year. The law, which recalculated the formula the state uses to dole out money to school systems, would provide an additional $5.1 million to Carroll County for the fiscal year that begins in July.
"Whether the General Assembly approves full Thornton funding will make or break what we do with salaries," Guthrie said. "We need to wait for that to happen. Any reduction ... will affect our ability to provide any meaningful compensation increase."
But contrary to Guthrie's assessment that this round of negotiations will revolve around money, a negotiator representing more than 2,500 employees in the teachers union and CASE said that "a lot of the issues that employees want brought up at the table will be noneconomic in nature."
"There are changes that have to and should be made in how we handle the day-to-day operations of the school system," Hal Fox said.
A collective bargaining law that passed during the last round of bargaining "gives employees a legitimate say in what happens in their workplace," Fox added. "These are the folks who are working day to day, minute to minute, with the kids."
The law, which passed and was signed in the spring of last year by then-Gov. Parris N. Glendening, gave teachers unions more say in education-related matters such 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 them on the bargaining table.
"There's a real opportunity with the new bargaining law to discuss issues directly pertaining to what happens in the classroom that were outside the scope of bargaining before," Fox said.
Of particular interest, he added, are "the dynamics of performance evaluations and observations," job transfers and reassignments, and curriculum changes.
School board members have appointed a new chief negotiator to hash out the teachers' contract.
James Doolan, the school system's transportation director, replaces Guthrie in heading the board's team that will negotiate with the Carroll County Education Association. Doolan has helped bargain contracts on the school board's behalf for at least 14 years, including four years as the chief negotiator with AFSCME.
"I'm going to approach this with a fresh start and a positive attitude as I'm sure they will, too," Doolan said of the teachers union. "I've spoken to their leadership in terms of getting ready and they're looking for an open and honest round of bargaining, as I am. Neither side is as concerned with what was as they are with what will be."