Contract negotiations between Baltimore's teachers and the school system leadership appear to have stalled, with the union criticizing school board negotiators as "ineffective and indecisive."
"The Board's unwillingness to convene a meeting with our leaders to discuss unresolved issues shows a lack of respect for educators, students, parents, and the community," Marietta English, president of the Baltimore Teachers Union, wrote in a letter to union members. "Our negotiations are aimed at retaining adequate healthcare, compensation, and working conditions for our bargaining unit members."
City school board chair Marnell Cooper said that he and his vice chair have met with union leaders over the course of negotiations, which began in March.
"For them to write a letter mischaracterizing the fact that we even met was appalling," Cooper said.
He also disputed the union's claim that the school system's negotiating team was inept, saying that at least one member is recognized as one of the best in the country.
The contentious nature of the negotiations first became public in October, when hundreds of teachers came to the school board meeting to protest what they said was the board's failure to negotiate seriously and to use an experienced bargaining team.
The union contends that the school district wants to cut $10 million in compensation and benefits. CEO Sonja Santelises denies that she wants to reduce current salaries but says the contract has to be considered in terms of the district's long-term financial stability.
The last teachers' contract was approved in 2014. It preserved many of the terms of a 2010 contract that tied teacher pay to performance and was hailed as a "landmark" deal and the most progressive in the country.
The contract has bolstered Baltimore teachers' pay to the highest starting salary in the state and allowed them to make more money faster by climbing a career ladder tied to professional development. However, some school district administrators also believe the cost of the contract has escalated over the years, squeezing the budget and forcing administrators to increase class sizes and make cuts elsewhere.
The letter from English also said the board and the administration have "demonstrated incompetence" by failing to implement elements of the contract in a timely manner. She cited examples such as inadequately training administrators on student learning objectives, not processing pay adjustments on time, and failing to respond to grievances, among other issues.
"Beyond simply reflecting poorly on our students, teachers, paraprofessionals, and school related personnel, the incompetence of BCPSS poses a serious threat to schools and communities," she wrote. "Our members are exposed to poor working conditions, unsafe environments, and oversized classes. Many students require special attention and aren't receiving the attention they deserve. Sadly many teachers are teaching outside their areas of certification."
Cooper said he believed the union's claims were a defense tactic against the current political tenor among some sectors of the country and the growing sentiment that teachers unions are inhibiting academic progress, especially in urban schools.
"That letter, to me, strikes at politics and not about the children," he said.