Teachers union is taking on Alonso

No-confidence vote sought

picketing to begin

October 02, 2007|By Sara Neufeld | Sara Neufeld,Sun reporter

Since becoming chief executive officer of the Baltimore schools in July, Andres Alonso has vowed to do what is right for children regardless of the political consequences.

Now Alonso is facing a fight with a formidable political opponent: the city teachers union.

The union has been without a contract since July because of a dispute with Alonso and the school board over planning time. In the coming days, it will ask its members for a vote of no confidence in Alonso and begin informational picketing outside schools.

"We're stepping it up," said Loretta Johnson, co-president of the union, which represents teachers and paraprofessionals. "The [school] board has shown no inkling of sitting down and negotiating a fair contract for teachers, and so we just have to do what we have to do."

By law, the city's teachers are not permitted to strike.

The union and the school system have reached agreement over pay and benefits. The sticking point is what would appear to be a minor issue: what teachers do with a period that amounts to about 45 minutes a week.

The school board, backed by Alonso, wants to give principals discretion to require teachers to spend one planning period a week working collaboratively with colleagues or receiving professional development. The union does not want teachers giving up that time.

Alonso argues that a hallmark of successful schools is collaborative planning time, when teachers from a particular grade level or subject come together to share strategies.

"What can I say?" he said. "I am here to make great decisions on behalf of kids. Every decision I will make will be what's right for kids. I feel strongly that teachers planning together is a great and necessary tool for the improvement of schools."

Union officials, who have been airing radio advertisements to build public support, counter that they have more paperwork than ever, and they need time in school to grade papers and prepare their lessons. They say teachers in surrounding school systems have more planning time than those in the city. If teachers cannot get work done in school, the officials argue, they will be dissuaded from taking on extracurricular assignments, such as advising a club or coaching a sport.

"All of the research shows teachers need more planning time," Johnson said. To take time away is "absolutely crazy."

Middle and high school teachers have five planning periods a week, and elementary school teachers get three. A period typically lasts 45 minutes, though some schools have schedules with 90-minute periods.

Alonso said he was surprised to hear the union may be holding a vote of no confidence in him. "Why?" he asked. "Because I've done something wrong? Because I've hurt kids?"

Johnson said the union and the school board were close to reaching an agreement on a new contract in June, before Alonso became chief executive officer.

"That's just a bold-faced lie," Alonso responded. He said the proposal for shared planning time was on the table before he started his job July 1 - also the day the union's contract expired.

Teachers are scheduled to picket before and after school or during their lunch breaks tomorrow outside Patterson High and Thursday outside the Polytechnic Institute/Western High complex. Johnson said the teachers are planning the protests themselves, and she expects picketing to spread to several more schools, including the Dr. Samuel L. Banks/Thurgood Marshall complex.

In addition, Johnson said, the union's approximately 200 building representatives met last week and decided overwhelmingly to ask the membership for a vote of no confidence in Alonso. A date for a membership meeting at which the no-confidence vote would occur had not been made final.

Since the school year started Aug. 28, the union has been asking its members to "work to rule," or work strictly to the terms of the contract without doing anything extra.

At the union's request, state Superintendent Nancy S. Grasmick has officially declared an impasse in the contract negotiations. Now representatives for the union and the school board are trying to agree on a neutral arbitrator to preside over fact-finding sessions.

Until the union has a new contract, teachers and paraprofessionals will not receive a raise. Johnson said the law entitles them to receive annual step increases, but so far they have not been reflected in teachers' paychecks. Alonso said he only learned of the problem Friday, and he will rectify it immediately.

Around the city, teachers have expressed confusion over the union's request that they work to rule, saying they do not want their students to suffer as a result of the stalled contract negotiations.

Johnson said the call for work to rule is "going great."

"Principals are calling and complaining," she said. "Teachers did a lot on their own, before school, after school. And now teachers are saying, `I'm not going to do those things. I'm only going to do what's required.'"

Alonso said he asked the administrators who oversee principals to poll their schools to gauge the impact of work to rule.

"Their report was an impact in only a handful of schools," he said. "I was just grateful to teachers for continuing to do their work as the professionals that they are."



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