Teachers' contract negotiations will be first hurdle for new school board members
The last time the contract between the Frederick County Board of Education and the teachers' union was up for negotiation, 11 months of haggling, a painful impasse process and five days of teachers' protests resulted before an agreement was reached.
The contract expires again in June and signing a new agreement with the teachers' union will be one of the most significant challenges for the Frederick County school board, which will have at least three new board members in December.
Four seats on the school board will be filled during the Nov. 2 general election. One incumbent is running for re-election.
Contract negotiations will not be easy, especially in a year when the school board will have to balance a tight budget with mounting pressure from teachers who have gone for three years without getting a raise, said Michael Schaden, vice president of the school board whose term will end in December.
New board members will not have much time to learn the specifics of the negotiations process before they start making important decisions about teachers' salaries and benefits, planning time and workload.
"The learning curve will be steep," Schaden said. "There are lots of things on the contract. And we haven't had any preliminary discussions about it."
The school system and the teachers' union hold negotiations on salaries and financial issues every year, and renegotiate the entire teachers' contract every three years.
Paula Lawton, the school system's human resources director, anticipates negotiations will begin in December and continue through April.
The biggest question before the board during that time will be whether to raise teachers' salaries for fiscal 2012. That is not a simple decision, even though skipping salary increases in a tough budget climate may seem like a no-brainer.
While holding back salary increases may be a healthy budget decision, it is not the best strategy for ensuring that Frederick County remains competitive with other Maryland counties, Lawton said.
"Other counties in Maryland have been giving their teachers salary increases and we remain significantly behind," she said.
Because of the bad budget times in the last few years Frederick County officials have not given teachers a raise since 2008, which has impacted negatively the school system's ability to compete for highly qualified teachers with other counties in the state, Lawton said.
According to Lawton, the Frederick County public school system offers $40,706 as a starting salary for new teachers, which ranks 22 among the 24 public education systems in Maryland.
In comparison, the starting salary for new teachers is $46,410 in Montgomery County, $45,061 in Howard County and $44,799 in Prince George's County.
Washington County, which is comparable to Frederick County by size and makeup, pays new teachers $43,652 and ranks sixth in the state, Lawton said. "That is problematic," Lawton said.
Salary increases, however, are just one small aspect of the discussion of teacher contracts, which normally covers topic such as health benefits, workload and planning time. Each of these topics has the potential to become a potential deal-breaker in the negotiations process, especially if the new school board takes salaries off the discussion table.
In 2008, for example, the issue that became a deal-breaker was the amount of planning time for high school teachers.
Up to that point, Frederick County high school teachers had 450 minutes each week to plan lessons and grade papers and the school board tried to push principals to reassign 90 of those minutes for collaborative time every week.
The school board later limited that collaborative time to 45 minutes twice per month, but as a result of their initial push, the negotiations between the school system and the union reached an impasse in May. As a result, the two sides had to hire a mediator to issue a non-binding solution to the problem.
Teachers eventually organized five "work to the policy" protest days, coming to school during only the hours for which they were paid. Some teachers stopped volunteering with student clubs or writing letters of recommendation outside of paid time.
Eventually, the two sides signed a contract in December 2008, nearly a year after they started negotiations.
Teachers may want to bring collaboration time up for discussion again, mostly because they don't feel it is being used efficiently, said Gary Brennan, president of the Frederick County Teachers Association. In addition, teachers most likely would want to discuss workload and the increasing demands on teachers' time, Brennan said.
That is why it will be crucial for the negotiations to start early and to ensure that new board members are fully aware of the rules and regulations that govern the negotiations process, Brennan said.
"There are very specific laws for how this works and there is definitely going to be a learning curve there," he said. "In my experience this is going to be pretty unique. In the last number of elections you've always had the same five core people on the board."