For teachers union leader, it's back to the classroom

Instruction: Joseph R. Staub Jr. will step down Thursday as president of the Howard County Education Association and return to Long Reach High School to teach social studies.

June 24, 2005|By Hanah Cho | Hanah Cho,SUN STAFF

As head of Howard County's teachers union for six years, Joseph R. Staub Jr. oversaw three contract negotiations, watched one superintendent retire and another ousted and lobbied successfully for higher salaries.

On Thursday, Staub will step down as president of the Howard County Education Association and return to the classroom as a social studies teacher at Long Reach High School in Columbia, where he taught before running for union president in 1999.

"I've always considered myself as a teacher, first and foremost," he said. "Yes, it will be different going back to the classroom, but it's going back to what I love doing."

At the same time, Staub's attachment to the union will continue as its treasurer, a volunteer position.

"Again, I can't envision myself being a teacher in Howard County and not being involved in the association," he said.

Staub's relationship with the teachers union began in 1972 when he started his career at Mount Hebron High School.

In 1991, Staub was asked to a fill a vacancy on the union's board of directors. That same year, then-Executive Charles I. Ecker did not honor a negotiated 6 percent raise - the first and only time that has happened in the county - in the midst of a recession, further igniting Staub's activism, he said.

In response, he organized the union's "working to rule," or doing the minimum amount of work required under the contract.

"I always believed a contract was invulnerable," Staub said.

Four years later, Staub become the union's vice president; in 1999, he began the first of three terms as president.

His annual union-paid salary is $95,000. As union president, he is on leave from the school system and is not paid by the county. Term limits prevented Staub from running this year.

"My job is not directly providing for the instruction of children in Howard County public schools," he said. "My job is helping provide the best working conditions for the teachers and support personnel who teach those children. From the bottom of my heart, I believe if you do what's in the best interest of your employees - teachers and support personnel - you are doing what's in the best interest of children."

During his tenure, the union has evolved to meet the needs of its several thousand members, who include teachers, instructional assistants, psychologists and other support staff.

Teachers and others have received consistent pay raises ranging from 3 percent to 6 percent under two multiyear contracts.

A new two-year contract, which begins July 1, calls for a 3 percent raise the first year and 3.5 percent the next year. Many teachers also would be eligible for step increases - raises based on experience.

"We have a good working relationship with Joe and the teachers union because we're all trying to do what's best for kids," said Courtney Watson, the school board chairman. "Generally, we work together for that goal. Sometimes, we're not always on the same page. That's the nature of the union versus the school board."

Union membership has increased 47 percent since 1999, from 2,900 to 4,250 this year. Included in that roster is the educational support personnel, or ESP, unit - which has doubled its membership to about 879 people in the past several years.

Staub has been responsive to educational support personnel - instructional assistants, secretaries and nurses, said Donna Schulze, an instructional assistant at Phelps Luck Elementary School. Schulze credits Staub with encouraging her leadership role in the union.

Staub, Schulze and others began lobbying the Board of Education to upgrade job classifications for ESP members on the heels of a consultant's report recommending that action in 2000. Last year, the school board approved the upgrades on the district's salary scale.

This year, cafeteria and food assistants are eligible join the union's ESP unit.

"He [Staub] has done a lot for the ESP," said Schulze. "He has brought their morale up. We're worth something."

Schulze is the first ESP member to become HCEA's vice president. She will take that job next month.

Staub's tenure has not been without challenges.

In 2002, the county's school administrators, mostly principals, left HCEA to form their own bargaining team - resulting in a loss of about 175 HCEA members.

The union has been sued a few times, including a highly publicized case involving a former Howard High School principal.

Although the relationship between the union and the school system is collaborative, that wasn't always the case.

Things were testy during former Superintendent John R. O'Rourke's tenure. O'Rourke took over for retiring Michael Hickey in 2000, and, as time went on, union officials felt O'Rourke was unresponsive to their concerns.

In February 2004, O'Rourke left before his contract expired after the school board decided not to rehire him.

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