Harford County Board of Education Member John Smilko has been a fervent opponent of the Fairness in Negotiations Act, a bill co-sponsored by Harford County Senator Barry Glassman that is currently making its way through the Maryland General Assembly. Smilko’s concerns have centered on a provision in the bill calling for binding arbitration when labor disputes cannot be settled between a local school board and the unions representing public school employees. The bill would also allow for negotiations and binding arbitration on previously ineligible issues such as employee transfers and reassignments and employee discipline and dismissal for just cause.
Currently when labor disagreements reach impasse on issues such as teacher compensation, the State Board of Education decides the case. Supporters of the bill argue that rulings tend to favor local school boards, although the State Board’s decisions are non-binding.
Board Member Smilko has said the bill would strip decision-making authority from local school boards and limit the influence of parents and other stakeholders on local policy. That’s because the bill includes language imposing a “self-executing mandate” on school boards and on local funding authorities to pay for decisions made by a third-party arbitrator. In an email, Smilko also speculated that the language in the bill regarding the mandate is intentionally unclear to “minimize what the public will notice” and that “There are no limitations in the bill as [to] what is “bargainable” so class size becomes fair game as well.”
In the following Letter to The Dagger, Smilko responds directly to some of the recent testimony by the bill’s sponsor, Senator Jamie Raskin (Dist.20) and from Diana Sequella of the Maryland State Teachers’ Association (MSTA):
Following the hearing, we now have an opportunity to examine the commentary from those officials and organizations supporting the bill hereafter referred to as the Glassman bill out of respect for its co-sponsor.
Senator Raskin, the bill’s sponsor, justified the need by stating that binding arbitration exists in 22 states. The last time I counted the states we had 50, so 22 is less than half, as if this was a good reason to pass the bill. I guess he believes that lemmings rushing over the cliff are a reasoned position. Perhaps the other 22 states should give it up and join the 28 without it.
Later on, in response to another Senator’s comment about the school system being run for the benefit of the students, Raskin says, “People in the classroom are deeply committed to kids” and would assume teachers will do the right thing. I have no argument with the statement, however, one of the key aspects of this bill is to overturn the “Livers” just cause ruling from the mid 1990’s. Livers was dismissed from a non-teaching position after being convicted for drug possession. The union fought for his reinstatement through the courts without success. In their opinion, due process was denied because they lost. The union would require, through this bill, that Livers and all other terminations should be a bargainable issue. I would like Senator Raskin to reconcile “doing the right thing” with forcing our children to be around a school employee that either uses or sells drugs. Apparently, the union does not have a problem with that. I do.
The presenter for MSTA also stated, “this legislation levels the playing field between school systems and the union” and “if we lose this bill, we will lose our #1 status”, referring to our recent #1 state ranking in the nation for public education. I do not follow her logic at all. Maryland rose to #1 without binding arbitration, yet now we will lose that top ranking without it? There is no evidence to support cause and effect, let alone a correlation, between binding arbitration and ranking. If we look at industries where the playing field was leveled in a manner satisfactory to the union, for example, steel, autos and airlines, what do we see? The union would argue that comparing the private sector to public education is not a valid. Nonsense. The only significant difference is that in the private sector consumers vote with their feet while in the public sector, taxpayers are not afforded that option.
In another exchange Senator Kittleman expressed concern over the hypothetical 5% pay increase decided by the arbitrator and the consequential burden place on a school system. Steve Benson of MSTA responded, “If the school system negotiated fairly, they may see a difference of only 1%”. So, I can conclude from his statement that, the union decides what’s fair, say in this example, 4%, and anything above the 4%, as in Senator Kittleman’s hypothetical, the extra 1%, is even more fair.
Finally, there is the constant union theme of respect for teachers and paying them what they are worth. Perhaps we should have a presentation on the pay and benefits package enjoyed by our teachers and non-certificated staff. Then, the public may want to weigh in on whether it’s too little, too much or just right.
The Public Schools Superintendents’ Association of Maryland (PSSAM) has estimated that a binding interest award of 1% in Harford County would cost $2,460,697 next year. The necessary funds would have to come from county government or from a reshuffling of priorities in the school board’s budget. State funding would not be increased to fulfill obligations created by binding arbitration (naturally!).
Smilko has plenty of company in opposition to the Fairness in Negotiations Act. In addition to PSSAM, the Maryland Association of Counties (MACo), the Maryland Association of Boards of Education MABE), the Maryland State Board of Education and no less than 8 local school boards, including Harford County, all testified against the bill.
Support for the bill has come from public school employee unions throughout the state. The Maryland State Teachers Association has offered testimony and talking points in favor of the bill which take a very different view of the “self-executing mandate” and the potential impact on taxpayers.
Finally, the Department of Legislative Services has also weighed in with the following fiscal note attached to the bill:
State Effect: To the extent teacher salaries increase due to the new collective bargaining process, general fund expenditures increase significantly to pay increased retirement costs. Revenues are not affected.
Local Effect: Local school system expenditures may increase significantly due to increases in school employee salaries and fringe benefits and the hiring of outside mediators and arbitrators.
Sources say the fiscal note for the State may sink the bill in the current economic climate.