The passage of the Fairness in Negotiations Act by the 2010 Maryland General Assembly will bring significant changes to public school labor negotiations in Maryland. Is the new law a “big win” or “openly hostile to education”? That depends on whom you ask.
In brief, the 24-page Fairness in Negotiations Act creates a state-wide Public School Labor Relations Board (PSLRB) with the power to decide labor disputes between local school boards and the unions representing local school employees. Disagreements involving salaries, benefits, and working conditions will be settled under the authority of the new PSLRB and final awards will be binding on both sides. Previously, such labor disputes were settled by the Maryland State Board of Education, and decisions were not binding on either party.
The PSLRB will also decide whether topics proposed for negotiation are mandatory (negotiable upon request), permissive (negotiable upon agreement by both parties), or illegal. In deciding topics for potential negotiation, the PSLRB is required to balance the impact on the school system as a whole, against the impact on employees. The new law also sets a timeline for resolving labor disputes and includes the procedures for transfers and reassignments as a mandatory negotiating topic.
Binding Arbitration Process
When negotiations reach an impasse, a third-party mediator will review the last and best offers from each side, and issue a settlement that the parties can accept in full or in part. If disputes remain, either party can request arbitration through the PSLRB.
The PSLRB determines the binding award among three options; the final offer from the local school board; the final offer from the local union; or the final settlement previously offered by the mediator. In the process, the language of the law calls for the PSLRB to convene a hearing to assess the ability of both local government and the local school board to fund the final offers, “considering their existing resources.” Also a factor: wages, benefits and working conditions in comparable, surrounding jurisdictions, both within Maryland and out-of-state.
While the PSLRB replaces the Maryland State Board of Education in hearing labor disputes, prior decisions or opinions issued by the State Board are not binding on the new PSLRB. The law sunsets in five years.
Contradiction in Terms?
The five-member Public School Labor Relations Board will be made up of two members chosen from a list provided by public school labor organizations. Two more members will come from a list provided by the Maryland Association of Boards of Education and the State Superintendents Association of Maryland. The fifth member is expected to be independent; to represent the public; and to have experience in labor relations.
Terms on the PSLRB are supposed to be for 5 years, but there is a seemingly contradictory provision in the law that staggers the expiration dates of the terms so that one member’s term expires in 2012, two members in 2013 and two members in 2014. The timing may be important in an election year, because the Governor appoints all five PSLRB members, with the advice and consent of the Maryland Senate.
“This is a big win for MSEA, our members and students,” said Clara Floyd, president of the Maryland State Education Association, the state’s largest union representing public school employees. “Whenever we work more closely with our education partners, our students reap the benefits.” Floyd was quoted on the MSEA Web site.
Diana Sequella, manager of governmental relations for MSEA told The Dagger that passage of the bill was the result of a twenty-year effort.
More from the MSEA Web site:
“This legislation…requires a labor board to balance the interests and welfare of the public against the interests of the employees; preserves the fiscal relationship between the county and the local school board; establishes a timeline for the negotiations between local board of education and the local K-12 employee association to be completed; addresses concerns raised by the Maryland Association of Counties, Maryland Association of Boards of Education, Public School Superintendents Association of Maryland, and Maryland Negotiation Service; establishes a process for a neutral third party to resolve differences between two parties, which adds a strong incentive for both sides to come to agreement early; makes procedures for assignments and transfers for teachers subjects for bargaining; has no fiscal impact to the state.”
The Maryland Association of Boards of Education doesn’t share the enthusiasm.
During the legislative session, MABE dubbed the bill the “Unfairness in Negotiations Act”, because the state PSLRB would override local authority in making budgetary, program and policy decisions.
MABE also predicted that binding awards would force school boards to make cuts elsewhere in their budgets or look for additional local funding; and that the bill would cost local school systems millions in teachers’ raises and thousands in arbitration and court costs, as unions try to overturn precedent on what are illegal, permissive and mandatory subjects of bargaining.
Now that the bill is law, John Wollums, director of governmental relations for the Maryland Association of Boards of Education told The Dagger “We still believe it’s entirely unnecessary.”
Wollums cited Maryland’s top ranking by Education Week, highly paid teachers, and a process for resolving labor disputes that was overseen for the past 40 years by the Maryland State Board of Education.
Regarding passage of the bill, Woolums said “It’s a testament to how much clout the unions have in an election year.”
But he also said that the full ramifications are unknown. “No one wants an unworkable award.” he said, adding that he was hopeful that good faith bargaining would limit the negative effects.
Harford County School Board Member John Smilko was less sanguine: “This [law] is openly hostile to education.” He said that with labor costs being 83% of Harford County Public Schools’ operating budget, binding awards such as teacher raises, could force cuts to programs, layoffs for staff, and increases to class size. He said that when the State Board of Education made labor decisions, they considered what was best for education, but the PSLRB will consider “what’s best for labor.” And Smilko predicted that public school unions throughout the state will go after any available funds “Any free penny that’s left over, they’re going to want.”
Local government officials will be affected too, Smilko said. While PSLRB cannot compel local governments to fund binding awards, Smilko predicted that the funding authorities, upon which school boards depend, will be under political pressure to pay for awards mandated by the PSLRB, “The gun is still to their head.”
In contrast, Randy Cerveny, president of the Harford County Education Association told The Dagger, “The funding issue doesn’t change. If the school system or the county doesn’t have the money, then it’s a moot point.” Regarding the potential for the school board to have to shift funds to pay for a binding award, Cerveny said that it might be more appropriate to spend money on salaries and benefits than on technologies or programs that don’t necessarily improve instruction.
Cerveny said the Fairness in Negotiations Act will bring an independent board to settle labor disputes, which he contrasted with past decisions favoring local school boards made by the State Board of Education. He doesn’t think the number of challenges to school board decisions will necessarily increase, noting that HCEA has rarely gone to impasse in the past ten years.
But he foreshadowed one local issue that the PSLRB might resolve.
Cerveny said a recurring concern has been the time teachers spend entering data on “edline” – an online service that provides students and parents with grade updates between report cards. If the PSLRB determined that inputting data on edline is a working condition, and therefore a mandatory negotiating topic, the issue could become part of labor negotiations. Regarding the law overall, Cerveny said “It forces a discussion at the negotiating table.”
The Fairness in Negotiations Act takes effect on July 1, 2010.