March 5, 2010

School officials say labor bill could take away purse strings

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By Nick DiMarco
Nick@MarylandReporter.com

Local school officials railed against a bill that would create a neutral third party to handle school labor disputes, warning that the measure could usurp local spending authority.

Opponents to the Fairness in Negotiations Act said the bill would shift budgetary control to non-elected officials, by giving a state panel authority to broker union negotiations.

A statewide Public School Labor Relations Board would handle arbitration and mediation for conflicts such as teacher salary and relocation under the bill. Nearly identical legislation passed through both the House and Senate last year, but failed to win final approval in the closing hours of the session.

“We’re worried that when you open the door to this new range of issues … every issue ultimately has ripple effects that talk about the dollar signs,” said Michael Sanderson, executive director of the Maryland Association of Counties.

The bill came before the Senate Finance Committee Thursday.

Sean Malone, a lobbyist representing the American Federation of Teachers, argued the current system does not work. Collective bargaining disputes are now decided by the State Board of Education. He was quick to point out that out of 19 cases, the state ruled in favor of local boards 15 times.

“The fact that one side is here saying to this body the process is not fair, this does not work, is reason enough to take a look at it and reform what’s going on,” Malone said.

The proposed labor board would have five members appointed by the governor: two union representatives, two school officials and one member of the general public.

The bill outlines a basic three-step process for the board. It would first determine whether or not a dispute is within its jurisdiction. Then it would facilitate arbitration in the event of an impasse.

Finally, the board would make a decision on the matter, which would only be honored if local funding is available. If the money’s not there, the issue would go back to negotiation.