Several hundred Anne Arundel County teachers voted yesterday to launch a countywide job action if the school board and state continue to threaten their health care and pension benefits.
The closed-door vote was held yesterday afternoon in Annapolis High School's packed auditorium, during a rare teachers union meeting open to all 4,100 members.
Union officials, who have not called such a meeting in two decades, told teachers that negotiations on a new two-year contract were stalled over the issue of health insurance coverage.
They also urged teachers to oppose the intentions of state officials to cut $400 million in aid to counties that pays for pensions for teachers, library workers and community college employees.
Officials from several counties have warned that they may have to raise taxes or cut the number of public safety and teaching jobs to make up for the lost state aid.
"We won't be seeing a raise for a long, long time, and neither will you, if the governor succeeds in shifting the costs of pensions to the locals," Nancy Dietz, a Frederick County math teacher and state union official, told the roughly 600 teachers who attended the meeting. "We will be fighting for our lives."
A majority of the teachers at the meeting backed three job actions to protest the threats to their pension and health care benefits: boycotting graduation events, which teachers are not required by contract to attend; picketing the school board during the summer; and working to the exact terms of the contract next school year -- forgoing after-school tutoring or club activities, for example.
The Anne Arundel County union will recommend that its members begin the job actions if contract talks fail in the next session June 3 and an impasse is declared.
The job action likely would not begin soon enough to affect teacher attendance at high school graduations during the first and second weeks of June, said Sheila Finlayson, president of the Teachers Association of Anne Arundel County.
Last month, the Anne Arundel school board endorsed a plan that met the union's salary demands --the exact amount hasn't been announced -- but could increase by 50 percent the amount that teachers pay for health care, union officials said.
The proposal "told us that [the board is] not willing to work with us," Finlayson said after the vote.
School board President Paul Rudolph could not be reached for comment last night.
Finlayson said she suspects that the school board is targeting teachers' health care plans -- which rank among the best in the state -- to make up for revenues it chose not to seek from the county for the fiscal year that begins July 1.
In February, the school board forwarded to the county a $664.5 million budget request that shaved more than $7 million from Superintendent Eric J. Smith's proposed request. The cuts included funding for items that the school system must pay, including utility bills and tuition for severely disabled students.
The County Council, which is scheduled to adopt its budget Thursday, is not permitted to give the school board more than it has asked for.
Most of the school board members had voted in favor of the smaller budget request to improve relations with the county, board members said. Some later conceded that they did not realize the cuts included mandatory operating costs.
Jennifer Manning, an Annapolis High math teacher, said she would prefer to attend graduation and work extra hours outside of her contract.
"That's the problem with teachers and job actions: You don't want to hurt the kids," she said.
But Manning, who was particularly upset by what could happen to teachers' pensions, said she voted in favor of the organized protest because she fears that such inroads on teacher job security will drive people out of the profession.