Teacher contract reaches impasse

Salary, nonmember dues holding up negotiations

Union to vote on protest options

Arbitration or mediation next step in procedure

April 08, 2005|By Liz F. Kay | Liz F. Kay,SUN STAFF

Contract talks have broken down between the Anne Arundel County school system and the teachers union, leaving teachers considering protest options.

State Superintendent of Schools Nancy S. Grasmick declared an impasse in negotiations Monday at the request of the Teachers Association of Anne Arundel County, which represents more than 5,500 employees.

Union President Sheila M. Finlayson said the two sides had gone far beyond their January contract deadline when the union asked for the declaration last week.

"If you get to the end of the road, you have to make a decision," she said.

School officials said they want to resolve the issue as quickly as possible.

"The board is hopeful that we can work this out," board President Edward P. Carey said yesterday.

Anne Arundel's teacher contract negotiations reached an impasse at least five times in the past 15 years, according to The Sun's archives.

"This is just another step in the process to reach this agreement," said Oscar N. Davis, the school system's director of employee relations.

At Wednesday's school board meeting, Finlayson accused the school system of "union busting" because of elements of the contract proposal.

At issue for the union were salary proposals. The disparity for some positions compared with surrounding counties ranges from nearly $1,000 to $24,000 more per year, according to the union.

"We are not able to recruit and retain the best and brightest because our salaries are so much lower," she said.

The school board's offer included increased tuition and mileage reimbursements and additional stipends for elementary school teachers who run extracurricular activities, but no change in contributions to health care plans.

At a news conference Wednesday, board members and Superintendent Eric J. Smith also said a task force, led by Carey and board Vice President Konrad M. Wayson, would consider ways to address teachers' concerns about workload.

But it was another issue that school officials said stymied the discussions: "modified agency shop." Under state legislation passed last year, the teachers union can bargain for the right to charge nonmembers they represent a percentage of annual dues for the service of negotiating, executing and enforcing their labor contract.

More than 4,100 members pay the full $572 in dues to local and national teacher associations each year, said Bill Jones, the union's executive director. Percentages for nonmembers would be calculated based on an annual audit and likely would be about 70 percent, he explained. A quarter of that money would be returned to the school district to pay for professional development.

Board attorney P. Tyson Bennett called agency fee "the elephant under the rug" during contract talks. Under state law, agency fee is a "permissible" negotiation item. Both sides must agree to bring it to the table. Though the union wanted to discuss it, the board chose not to, he said.

Bennett described the question as a debate between those who believe all employees should support the union financially and those who think they should have the freedom to contribute if they choose.

"The board simply has not at this point been willing to get into that philosophical discussion" with the teachers' association, Bennett said.

Carey, who is running to retain his seat on the school board, told the audience at a candidate forum Tuesday that he would be "willing to discuss" modified agency shop, because the bill provides for items such as professional development.

"Some of those things, I think, are worthwhile to talk about," he said yesterday.

Finlayson said the issue is not the money that partial dues from nonmembers would generate, but the security of the union.

"Everything they do that attacks teachers is a union security issue," she said.

The board offered to expand incentive payments, given to teachers at schools that failed to meet state performance goals, to 16 schools with high populations of economically disadvantaged students. However, the payments for all eligible teachers would drop from a maximum of $3,000 to $2,000.

More than 500 teachers would lose $1,000 as a result, which could prompt them to leave the union, Finlayson said.

"What does dropping membership do? It weakens the voice," she said. "We speak for 4,000. Imagine if we only spoke for 1,000."

The teachers association and the school system are focusing on the impasse procedure.

If both sides agree, they can request the state Board of Education's assistance with mediation. Otherwise, the school system moves to arbitration. Each party names a representative, and the two select a neutral third party to round out a panel.

The panel can either mediate differences or research the issues and present their findings and recommendations to the local board of education. Although the panel is supposed to come to a decision within 30 days, such swift action is rare, Davis said.

The effect in schools may come sooner. The teachers union will hold an all-members meeting Thursday to vote on protest options, which include "work to rule" -- that is, doing the minimum required work -- and picketing.

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