A new schools chief has come to Baltimore. Andres Alonso's arrival coincides with the last stages of negotiation of a multiyear teachers union contract, which will effectively tie his hands if its provisions are unwise.
There is much in the current contract that was carelessly accepted, and much that needs revision. Political realities preclude drastic revisions, but there are steps in the right direction that should be taken.
The two drivers of the system's recurrent fiscal crises are teachers' automatic step salary increases, up to the 21st year of service, and their "Cadillac" health insurance plan. The panel under the chairmanship of former Baltimore County Circuit Judge Barbara Kerr Howe that investigated the last fiscal crisis determined that these items increase personnel costs by 8 percent per year, while the district normally sees about a 2 percent increase in tax revenues. The difference creates a structural deficit of $42 million per year.
The system cuts off seniority increments at the 10th year for teachers without master's degrees; it should ultimately do the same for all teachers. A start should be made by lowering, perhaps to 18, the years of step increases, and/or lowering them to 10 for new entrants into the system.
The health plan contains a $150 individual and $400 family annual deductible with no co-pays for most in-network services, and co-pays of only $10 for branded drugs, well below those in Medicare Part D. Middle-class professionals should be expected to budget for routine health care.
In addition to exorbitant health care costs and wage increases, the contract provides the most liberal provisions for cash conversion of sick leave of any school district in Maryland.
Fiscal profligacy, however, is far from the only problem with the current contract. Consider the following provisions:
A five-step grievance system subordinating the superintendent and the board to a third-party arbitrator. This renders teachers virtually impossible to remove.
A seven-hour, five-minute school day with a 45-minute lunch period. Nearly all counties have a seven-hour, 30-minute school day with a 30-minute lunch period.
Priority in requested transfers between schools is granted on the basis of seniority. The effect of this is that highly paid, experienced teachers gravitate to the "least difficult" schools. A study in Baltimore County showed a disparity in per pupil spending between schools of as much as 2-to-1 because of this phenomenon. The state has spent billions providing equal school spending between school districts, only to have its objective undone within districts by the seniority provisions of union contracts.
The only contract variation allowing extra pay to math, science or special-education teachers is limited to $500 per year for three years. By contrast, Talbot County allows 10 years of extra seniority increments where necessary to attract teachers in scarce disciplines.
Another deficiency of the contract is that the only way teachers may advance on the basis of good work is by becoming department heads, in which case they are required to partially leave the classroom; by being designated "master teachers," entitling them to an extra $4,000 per year but requiring that they "not be assigned regular full-time classroom duties"; or by being certified by a union-controlled national board whose certificates have little correlation with classroom competence, which brings an additional $4,000.
It is also stipulated that "enterprise schools" - presumably including charter schools - are allowed to make operational decisions "in accordance with labor agreements," a vague provision that does far more than properly guarantee salaries and benefits.
Numerous provisions in the contract discriminate against teachers whose seniority has been gained in other public school systems; others transgress on curriculum and textbook issues reserved to management by state law. While state law wisely provides that troubled schools be provided with community boards known as school improvement teams - a provision that could usefully be extended to all high schools - the current contract seeks to vitiate this provision by packing the teams with teachers at the expense of the dreaded "outsiders."
Mr. Alonso has his work cut out for him. He needs more help than the school board's negotiating committee has given to his predecessors.
George W. Liebmann, a Baltimore lawyer, is executive director of the Calvert Institute for Policy Research and the author of "The Agreement: How Federal, State and Union Regulations are Destroying Public Education in Maryland." His e-mail is firstname.lastname@example.org