Schools, city union struggle for power

Dispute sets tone for future dealings

October 18, 2007|By Sara Neufeld | Sara Neufeld,Sun reporter

On its face, the dispute between the Baltimore Teachers Union and the city school system seems almost trivial.

But below the surface, the fight is about much more than 45 minutes a week of planning time.

It's a power struggle between the school system's old guard and a new, reform-minded chief executive officer. It's reflective of the deep mistrust many teachers hold for any directives from the central office. At the same time, it shows a division within the city's teaching ranks, some of whom support the union leadership while others are embarrassed by the display.

Though the union is technically at an impasse with the school board, CEO Andres Alonso is the one who has taken up the battle publicly, and the union's criticism is directed largely at him. Alonso left New York City to lead Baltimore's schools this summer after the board assured him he would have complete authority to run the system.

Observers say that if Alonso can't win this, his proverbial first round, he'll have far more trouble making more drastic changes in the city schools later. Alonso has said the union dispute is "almost like defining the terms of engagement."

The dispute will probably be settled when representatives for the two sides meet next month with a mediator, who will break the stalemate. The contract for the union expired July 1, and negotiations are at an impasse. Everything but the planning-time issue has been resolved.

Alonso wants principals to be able to require teachers to spend one planning period a week, or 45 minutes, collaborating with colleagues. He says collaborative planning is a hallmark of successful schools, and many city schools are doing it already.

While no one from the union disputes the merits of collaborative planning, union leaders refuse to give up teachers' individual planning time, used for everything from grading papers to photocopying to helping struggling students. In radio commercials, the union has aggressively promoted the fact that teachers in other Maryland school systems have more planning time than teachers in Baltimore.

What the commercials have not mentioned: Because they have historically been paid less, city teachers are contractually required to spend less time in school than their colleagues in every other Maryland school system except one, Baltimore County. The city's contract also allows for a longer lunch break than most.

The city requires teachers to be in school for seven hours and five minutes per day, 190 days a year. Montgomery County requires 7 1/2 hours of work time for 195 days, amounting to an extra 16 days a year in school. A review of area contracts shows that Anne Arundel County teachers must spend the equivalent of 12 more days in school than city teachers; Harford County, 11 more; Howard County, 15; and Carroll County, 13.

Around the region, most secondary school teachers get one planning period a day, and teachers in Baltimore have that as well. The disparity is at the elementary school level, where teachers in Baltimore get three 45-minute planning periods a week while teachers in other jurisdictions have planning time daily.

Elementary teachers get a reprieve from their classes only when children go to "resource" activities such as music, art, computer and physical education. There are fewer such activities at some city schools than in the suburbs.

Kaitlin Russo, a third-grade teacher at Edgewood Elementary, said her planning time is routinely taken away because her school doesn't get substitutes when resource teachers are absent, and sometimes teachers are called to do other duties. When the school secretary broke her toe, the computer teacher filled in. Computer class was canceled. Russo lost her planning time.

Many teachers seem eager to give Alonso a chance, but there's also an inherent mistrust in mandates from system headquarters. Teachers point to the 10 days a year they already spend receiving professional development, which they say is often useless. Alonso said he is evaluating the quality of the sessions.

"A lot of times, you feel like you're wasting your time in professional development," said Jodie Kavanaugh, a science teacher at the charter school ConneXions Community Leadership Academy, who worked previously at Hamilton Middle and Frederick Douglass High. "I've even walked out on professional developers who were very condescending. ... They can be very discouraging and even leave you feeling angry and demeaned."

Kavanaugh said some teachers worry that common planning time could be similarly ineffective. But she supports Alonso, saying that group planning helps students at ConneXions. "A lot of people are very embarrassed by the union," she said.

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