March 29, 2010

Teacher labor panel bill gaining speed in Annapolis

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By Nick DiMarco
Nick@MarylandReporter.com

Teachers would be able to take labor disputes beyond the respective boards of education that control their salaries, under a controversial bill gaining speed in both the House and Senate.

Even opponents to the bill, which would create a neutral third party to handle disputed negotiations for teachers statewide, call the measure “greased lightening.” Foes argue that the bill will take spending authority away from local decision makers, though there is a provision that allows counties not to fund pay hikes.

On Friday, the bill blew past Senate amendment speed bumps that threatened to curb it.

Lead sponsor Sen. Jamie Raskin, D-Montgomery, and Finance Committee Chairman Sen. Thomas Middleton, D-Charles, agreed the current system of allowing arbitration to be handled by county officials and the Maryland State Board of Education doesn’t make sense.

“If you were a teacher and every step of the way you were mediated by the people making the decisions, how is that fair?” Middleton asked.

According to testimony heard during a Finance Committee hearing March 4, out of 19 instances when cases were referred to the state, 15 were decided in favor of the local boards of education.

The board would be composed of a five-member body appointed by the governor. The only provision made to the bill was that a union member could not be on the board, although many attempts were made to “undo” the measure, as Sen. Middleton put it.

Sen. Nancy Jacobs, R-Cecil and Harford, argued for superintendents, who believed that the power of relocating teachers should remain with them.

“They feel like it too much removes them from the process,” Sen. Jacobs said. “I think the superintendents know what’s best for their counties.”

Under the bill, public school teachers could object to relocation by taking up their grievances with the board. Sen. Jacobs said teachers often want to stay in the schools with the “best and brightest” students, but their talents would be better suited in areas of need.

“We need some of those best and the brightest teachers teaching in the downtrodden schools, teaching in the schools where the kids really need the help of a seasoned teacher,” she said.

With the exception of the one amendment, the bill passed through both Houses in its exact posture, only failing to reach approval during the closing hours of the session.

An identical bill is before the House Ways and Means Committee, which is headed by lead bill sponsor Del. Sheila Hixson, D-Montgomery.