Baltimore teachers reject proposed contract

… Many are upset by lack of details about how they would be evaluated …

By Erica L. Green, The Baltimore Sun

10:12 PM EDT, October 14, 2010

Baltimore teachers rejected a contract Thursday that would have provided six-figure salaries for an elite corps but would have tied the pay of all educators to how they perform in the classroom, a vague provision that caused discomfort for many union members.

More than 2,000 educators represented by the Baltimore Teachers Union voted on the tentative agreement, which had been hailed as the most innovative in the nation since its details emerged two weeks ago. However, it proved to be one of the most contentious ever in Baltimore, with its overhaul of how teachers are compensated, promoted and evaluated.

The new contract would have eliminated the traditional system of “step increases,” under which teachers are paid based on seniority and education degrees. Instead, it would have paid teachers based, in large part, on how effective they are in the classroom and their pursuit of professional development.

On Wednesday and Thursday, 1,540 union members voted against the tentative agreement and 1,107 in favor. The union represents about 6,500 educators.

Marietta English, president of the teachers union, said the results of the vote reflected “frustration and misinformation” about the contract. She said in a statement that the union had been told that “some charter school operators have encouraged their teachers not to vote for this agreement.”

“We negotiated a very new and different agreement at a time when fear, frustration and distrust are at an all-time high,” English said. “We are confident that this is a bump in the road, and if we continue on the road of working with the administration, and listening to and respecting our members, we will soon have a great teacher contract for the city of Baltimore.”

English said that union officials will meet in the coming weeks with their members, many of whom said they didn’t have enough time to learn about the contract before the vote.

The union’s current contract expires Oct. 28. Union and school system bargaining teams will now have to go back to the negotiating table. English hopes to keep the same framework of the agreement that was reached after eight months of negotiations.

Schools CEO Andrés Alonso vowed in a statement Thursday night to continue to work with the union.

“Many teachers wanted more information about all the dimensions of the contract and more time to digest what it would mean,” he said. “I respect the seriousness with which teachers approached the vote and the importance of the questions they have raised.”

Alonso is scheduled to hold an 8:30 a.m. news conference today at city school headquarters to discuss the results of the vote.

Education experts say they believed the vote failed because teachers needed more time to dissect and comprehend the radical changes in the contract.

The strongest objection to the contract had been that teachers had only two weeks to fully understand it, though union officials held several information sessions, even up until and during voting Thursday.

“What’s good for the teaching profession are changes that Baltimore is trying to make,” said Kate Walsh, president of the National Council on Teacher Quality, who also serves on the state’s school board. “But change is hard, and when you try to make big changes like this without spending the time fully explaining what’s behind the change, people get very nervous.”

But Walsh said she understands the district’s urgency because there is a national momentum behind reform. “My own view is that we don’t have a lot of time to waste,” she added. “But from the teachers’ perspective, they’re the guinea pigs, and you can appreciate why they feel so nervous.”

The contract would have introduced a new four-tiered career ladder that would have paid some teachers more than $100,000 and encouraged more pursuit of professional development and school-based leadership. A 2 percent, retroactive pay increase and a $1,500 stipend would have taken effect immediately for all teachers.

The agreement also dictated that by its third year, all schools would employ “school-based options” — a plan under which 80 percent of teachers in a school could help set working conditions not outlined in the general contract, such as a longer work day or more planning time.

The new contract did not include details about how teachers would be evaluated, because the Maryland State Department of Education is in the process of developing a new tool linking 50 percent of teacher evaluations to student performance.

Bill Reinhard, spokesman for the state education department, said the state was “disappointed and we hope the two sides come together soon with a contract that is as innovative as this one.”

Hundreds of teachers protested a ratification of the agreement until the evaluation criteria are detailed. Many were on hand at Polytechnic Institute on Thursday handing out fliers urging teachers to vote against the contract until it was “complete.”

Teachers engaged in heated debates with union officials up until they placed a yellow ticket, indicating their choice of “For” or “Against,” in a recycled Staples box with a hole cut out at top — a makeshift voting booth that did not go unnoticed.

“They’re talking about professionalism, and this is the most unprofessional thing I’ve ever seen,” said Teresa Buchheister, a teacher of 22 years who voted against the contract. “If I was going to vote yes, that would have changed my mind.”

Veteran teachers were among the most vocal at the voting, asserting that the contract sells them out. “There’s nothing in it for us,” said Joan Kelly, a 37-year veteran of the school system. “They want to get rid of all the old teachers, and we’re very upset.”

Kelly said that even the significant pay raises at stake couldn’t sway her, though she has been frozen at the same pay scale for 17 years. She said she voted against the contract because the evaluation system had not been developed.

“It’s just not complete,” she said. “It’s like signing a blank check.”

But Amanda Peyton, a teacher of eight years, said that the contract spelled out enough to persuade her to vote for it. In her position as a teacher leader, Peyton said that she has been providing support to other teachers, engaging in after-school activities and taking more courses — all pursuits that could earn her more money in the contract without becoming an administrator.

Her pay, she said, does not reflect her ambitions.

“The best part of the contract was that teachers like me, who go above and beyond, it paid me for what I’ve been doing, not just that I’ve been teaching for eight years,” Peyton said. “I can’t afford to be a teacher, so it gives me the opportunity to stay in the classroom doing what I love. … It would be the best of both worlds.”

Peyton said she believed that the contract would only be defeated because “some people may be afraid of being held accountable.”

Some education experts said the city teachers took a step back in voting down the contract. Chester E. Finn, president of the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, called the contract’s defeat “akin to voting to repeal the law of gravity.” In a report issued over the summer, the conservative think-tank that researches education policy gave Baltimore a “C” on reform.

“This was a dangerously short-sighted vote, and they have placed themselves on the wrong side of history,” Finn said. “They may ‘win’ in the short run — and that may be what the membership cares about — but they are destined to lose in the long run.”

Copyright © 2010, The Baltimore Sun

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