Donald Fry: State stumbles in enacting new education collective bargaining process

By Donald Fry

On May 4, Governor Martin O’Malley signed a largely under-the-radar bill that quietly gives teachers unions in Maryland a new and significant advantage in the collective bargaining process with local school boards.

The bill, innocuously titled “The Fairness in Negotiations Act,” repeals the Maryland State Board of Education’s authority to resolve public school labor relations disputes. It also repeals the authority of local school boards to make final determinations of matters that are subject to negotiation.

Instead, the bill creates a five-member Public School Labor Relations Board to hear public education labor disputes and makes the labor board’s decisions binding – where the state board of education’s resolutions were non-binding.

The board’s members will be appointed by the governor. Two will be selected from a list submitted by teachers unions and two from lists provided by school board and school superintendents’ associations. The new law calls for the governor to appoint a fifth board member who represents the public, has experience in labor relations, and who is neither an officer nor an employee of a school board and “is not an active member of a labor union.”

The Maryland State Education Association supported the bill as “adding a long-overdue fairness component to Maryland’s collective bargaining for K-12 employees.”

Simply taking this new law on its face, it’s difficult not to be skeptical that it will promote fairness. Consider that, beginning in July, when the law takes effect, local school system disputes will be resolved in a binding manner by a new five-member labor board with two pro-union members and another appointed by the governor, who has supported the teacher union position.

Conversely, in times when the state would have a governor who favors management over unions, the political balance on the school labor relations board could be reversed. Either way, this new law sets up a mechanism for resolving labor disputes that has an obvious inherent built-in bias.

This doesn’t jibe with General Assembly proponents’ innocuous characterization of the legislation as establishing a neutral and fair board to resolve labor disputes.

Opponents – which included the Maryland Association of Counties, the Maryland State Board of Education, the state’s public school superintendents association and local school boards – contended that the legislation is unnecessary, costly, and disruptive.

It imposes a new system of dealing with employee contract, work rules, and labor disputes at a time of unprecedented budget shortfalls and a national movement in favor of more, not less, flexibility for superintendents and local school boards to reform public education, according to the Maryland Association of Boards of Education.

The association predicts that the new law will cost local school systems millions of dollars in raises and thousands in arbitration fees and court costs.

The Department of Legislative Services does not refute that contention. State analysts rightly note that there is nothing in the specific language of the law suggesting that the new collective bargaining system will impact school system salaries. “But if it does, the impact will be significant,” analysts warn.

There’s a troubling irony in the fact that the governor signed two education bills on the same day that seem to work at cross purposes.

He signed the Education Reform Act of 2010 that extends new teacher probationary periods and installs other outcome-based measures that better enable Maryland to compete for federal “Race to the Top” funding. But in also signing the Fairness in Negotiations Act, the governor replaced a successful 40-year policy with a more rigid measure that erodes state and local fiscal control over education budgets. This approach flies in the face of Obama administration guidelines that clearly call for local flexibility and authority to control budgets.

I fully understand the real-world political dynamics that go into getting a bill passed in the General Assembly. I also understand that all too often pressures are brought to bear on lawmakers to fix things that aren’t broken. And labor unions certainly have every right to aggressively advocate for their members and to work the system on their behalf.

But faced with an opportunity to institute reform in our public education system and to ensure consistent, effective education and fiscal policy, it would seem that this year our state lawmakers took one step forward and one step back.

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