Friday, Jan 29–Teachers Group Favors Bargaining Panel

NEWARK – While the county school board opposes legislation proposing an independent panel to handle employment contract negotiating disputes, the Worcester County Teachers Association (WCTA) is all for it.

“I think it’s a good idea,” said WCTA President Terry Springle. “The teachers are the only organization in the state that does not have a third party to resolve disputes between the bargaining agents.”

Currently, when an employee organization and the Worcester County Board of Education negotiators cannot come to an agreement during contract negotiations, the power now lies with the school board to make the final decision.

Springle likened this situation to asking a mother-in-law to decide which spouse is right in an argument. Your mother-in-law will probably decide in the blood relative’s favor no matter what, he said.

Collective bargaining with school employees should be in the hands of the local school board, not a state panel, the Worcester County Board of Education concluded recently in deciding to oppose a bill that would, according to staff, give a state panel strong powers over employee contract negotiations.

The legislation, introduced in the Maryland General Assembly in 2009 and again in 2010, would rewrite collective bargaining laws in the state for county school systems.

“Our school board has been very forthcoming and very considerate in negotiations and I believe we have a good process in the county,” said Springle.

That is not the case in the rest of the state, Springle said, where some teacher and staff organizations are taken advantage of by the county school authorities.

“That’s just not right,” Springle said.

The Public School Labor Relations Board, according to a summary by Worcester County Superintendent of Schools Dr. Jon Andes, would have a broad swathe of authority to decide all school and employee labor disputes.

According to a memo from Andes, the panel would also have the authority to overrule local school boards and make employment decisions binding on local school systems.

Teacher and employee transfers, currently the province of local school boards, would also be subject to collective bargaining under the legislation, and disputes would be reviewed by the labor relations board.

The power to declare an impasse in collective bargaining negotiations would be taken from the superintendents of schools and given to the labor relations board, according to the memo.

Springle said that he could not remember negotiations between WCTA and the county school board ever reaching this point.

“We’ve been able to work things out,” Springle said.

Current laws allow the negotiating sides to engage an outside mediator after an impasse is declared, but the school board has the final say.

The legislation would allow the labor relations board to force the two parties to undergo arbitration.

According to Andes, the arbitrator in this situation could mandate program cuts or layoffs to handle teacher salaries.

Springle said this interpretation of the legislation is incorrect, and that the process would revert to the current method, leaving that money allocation decision in the hands of the school board.

Disciplined and terminated employees under the current law can appeal those actions to the local school board and then the Maryland state school board. The proposed law would allow collective bargaining on discipline and terminations.   

The legislation under consideration would also remove local school boards’ authority to decide which topics may be negotiated, giving that authority to the labor relations board, school board staff contends.

“Elected local Board of Education members will be held accountable by local citizens for the success or failure of a local school system while a state Public School Labor Relations Board meeting in Annapolis or Baltimore will be making decisions that will drastically limit the authority of the local Board of Education,” Andes concluded.

Spingle believes the impact would not be as far reaching.

“All this does is put an independent panel in place of the two sides,” said Springle. “This is just an individual panel that makes the decision.”

The Worcester County school board agreed unanimously to oppose the proposed legislation.

“If adopted, this legislation will significantly limit the authority of the elected Board of Education to adopt policy and operate the school system,” Andes wrote.

According to Springle, the legislation needs to pass to ensure fairness for all parties involved.

“We’re hopeful that the bill will pass because it puts in place a fair and impartial party to make the decision if we can’t come to an agreement,” said Springle.

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