By Glynis Kazanjian
For Maryland Reporter.com
A bill allowing public school teachers recommended for suspension or termination to bypass school board discipline hearings and use an outside arbitrator to decide the case will become law, despite Gov. Larry Hogan’s veto of the measure. The Senate and House overrode the veto Thursday.
Proponents of the bill, SB639, say it provides a neutral path for teachers who are wrongfully accused.
“While the state has a lot of great superintendents, sometimes they make mistakes,” said Del. Eric Luedtke, D-Montgomery, a former Montgomery County public school teacher. “Sometimes they make a bad recommendation for the suspension of a teacher for something minor, and those decisions will be able to be appealed in a neutral way.”
Luedtke also argued it could make the process more efficient to weed out bad teachers.
“By introducing the option of arbitration, it will actually make the process faster to get rid of a bad teacher,” Luedtke said.
Del. Jimmy Tarlau, D-Prince George’s, said changing the law is about fairness and neutrality.
“Ninety-five percent of all workers covered by collective bargaining contracts have arbitration, a neutral process as a last part of any grievance procedure,” Tarlau said. “Firefighters, health workers and airlines have it. No one wants management to make the final decision about whether somebody should be disciplined. You want to have a neutral person do it.”
Taking authority away
But opponents say it takes authority away from local school boards, and it will make it harder for the public school system to get rid of bad teachers.
“It takes the local board of education out of the decision and brings in an outside arbitrator who by definition has no connection to the school system,” said Del. Susan Krebs, D-Carroll.
Arbitrators “should not be entitled to determine who should remain employed by the school system.”
Krebs, a former president of the Carroll County Board Of Education, said there are many protections already in place for teachers, and it is a very difficult process to get rid of a teacher.
Under current law, when a school superintendent recommends a teacher for suspension or termination, the teacher may request a hearing before their local school board.
The school board can hear the case themselves and rule, or they can choose to have a hearing examiner hear the case, who would then make a recommendation to the school board. Krebs said it is common for school boards to use a hearing examiner in complex cases.
If the teacher is unhappy with the ruling, they can appeal the decision to the State Board of Education. If the state board concurs with the local board decision to suspend or terminate the teacher, the state board must also send the case to the Office of Administrative Hearings (OAH) for review by an administrative judge. The state board must also send the teacher’s case to OAH if they believe there is a legitimate dispute of material fact.
If a teacher is unhappy with the SBOE ruling, he or she has the option to appeal to the Circuit Court where they reside, within 30 days of the SBOE decision.
Under the new law, the arbitrator’s ruling will be final, but the teacher may request a judicial review by a circuit court, which must be governed by the Maryland Uniform Arbitration Act.
The Department of Legislative Services estimated that local expenditures will “increase, potentially significantly” if the bill is enacted.
Estimates indicate each arbitration case would cost around $1,500. However, the fiscal note does not take into account legal fees associated with each teacher who chooses to challenge the state’s decision in court.
However, if a teacher is recommended for suspension or termination by an arbitrator, the teacher must pay half the costs associated with the arbitration hearing.
The veto override on the House floor Thursday followed the override of another bill Hogan vetoed, HB1783, that strips authority from the Board of Public Works to approve funding for school construction funding.
Del. Jason Buckel, R-Allegany, said there is already ample protection in place for teachers to have a fair hearing, questioning the motive behind the override.
“That’s not what this bill is about,” Buckel said. “Every person that just stood up to override the governor’s veto on the last bill talked about how we should let our locals get what they want and not have to go to the [Board of Public Works] for funding. Then they turn around 15 minutes later and say I don’t care what the local board says about the teacher. That teachers gets a special right to get an arbiter. That’s not common sense. I would suggest if you want to be logically consistent, you can’t vote one way on one bill and then vote another way on the other bill.”