On any given day, a teacher's mailbox is usually chock full of messages: leaflets advertising professional development, discount coupons for office supplies, publications from curriculum companies, and book club invitations.
But under a contract that teachers are expected to vote on Thursday, they fear that such communication would cease — unless it comes from the Baltimore Teachers Union.
City teachers are criticizing an unusual clause included in the proposed contract that appears to give the union the exclusive right to disseminate information via email or through teachers' mailboxes. They say the new language is too broad and attempts to silence dissenters and disempower those who organize outside of union parameters.
"The limitation of communication is really disturbing," said Kris Sieloff, a teacher at City Neighbors High School who called the clause a clear First Amendment violation.
The new clause states that "individuals and organizations other than the union shall not be permitted to use the school system's interdepartmental mail and email facilities, or the right of distribution of materials to teachers' mailboxes."
Mike Pesa, a Patterson High School teacher, called the communication clause "nothing less than a gag rule designed to silence any opposition from rank-and-file members of the union."
Marietta English, president of the Baltimore Teachers Union, said the clause was intended to ensure that the union's messages were reaching teachers, and she denied that the clause was intended to muzzle teachers. She said teachers have more than enough ways of communicating.
"Today, it isn't even relevant because everybody tweets and blogs," English said. "More people blog and Facebook more than anything. If you want to communicate, you can communicate. I don't see how we can stop you, when you have every means of communicating today."
But Sieloff, who has taught in Baltimore for a decade, said she was concerned about how teachers would be able to get the word out about forums and other discussions that teachers like to attend to discuss topics in education.
"Teachers want more access to things like that," she said. "It doesn't happen unless you get the word out."
The union announced the new tentative agreement with the district last week after months of negotiations, praising it as a good deal that builds on the successes of the previous contract and preserves benefits that teachers in other districts nationwide are sacrificing.
The three-year pact calls for teachers to receive this month a stipend equal to 1 percent of their annual salary if the contract is ratified, and a 1 percent raise every year through 2016. The contract also calls for teachers' health insurance to stay intact.
The contract maintains key elements of the agreement ratified three years ago, which overhauled the district's pay structure. Traditional "step increases," or automatic annual pay raises, were replaced with a pay-for-performance career ladder that teachers could climb with good evaluations and "achievement units," earned by attending professional development, taking courses or other activities.
"We think this is a good contract," English said. "Last time, this was a whole new contract. We've lived with this now, we've ironed out a lot of the kinks that we had before."
But some city teachers have complaints in addition to objections over the communication clause. Many called the ratification process a rush job designed to suppress debate.
Corey Gaber, a teacher at Southwest Baltimore Charter School, said he took issue with the "fundamentally undemocratic process" of having teachers scrutinize and vote on the contract in a week.
"If you value what your members think about something, then you give them an opportunity to consider the new contract, provide feedback, make changes if necessary, and then vote on it," he said. "This timeline excludes such possibilities, meaning our concerns are not only not being represented by our representatives, there's not even a genuine attempt to listen to them."
English said the vote needed to take place quickly because the contract expired and was extended through Friday.
Teachers also said the contract fails to address long-standing issues with teacher evaluations and working conditions. And some teachers said that while they are happy to keep their benefits, the 1 percent pay increase fails to keep up with the cost of living.
Bobbi O'Brien, a teacher at Patterson High School, said she believed the contract was "unfair."
As a 10-year veteran teacher, she said that under the new contract, her pay will grow by $50 a month. She said that's not enough to get her to sign a contract, given the conditions that she and her colleagues have to endure.
"I think offering a 1% raise and a stipend 'once the contract is ratified' … is just a way to get people to vote 'yes' without reading the whole contract or asking any more questions," O'Brien said in an email.
"I don't believe people understand or know the working conditions of teachers in the city," she said. "A 1 percent raise is almost insulting, given all of these things, on top of the fact that the evaluation system is unfair."
English said that while the increases may be small for some teachers, the career ladder gives them the opportunity to earn more than they could under previous contracts and other districts have seen salaries stagnate.
By earning achievement units, teachers can move through four "pathways:" standard, professional, model and lead. English said just moving up one pathway in the contract ladder could give a teacher an 11 percent raise.
Esther Ward, a speech language pathologist at Dallas F. Nicholas Elementary School, plans to vote to approve the contract because she has been rewarded financially for taking additional courses.
"Teachers work very hard, and I think that the way the contract is developed, it promotes a nice way of being able to gain more money for the work that you do," said Ward, who has been with the district for 11 years.
"There's personal growth as well as professional growth in moving through the pathways. There should always be that natural desire to learn, and I think the contract promotes constant growth."
But one of the biggest complaints about the contract has been that earning achievement units, and thus moving up the pay scale, has been harder for teachers than originally promised.
English acknowledged that some teachers were told they would receive credits for activities such as staffing clubs and groups but then the district refused to accept them. She said the process of awarding achievement units has been inconsistent, due to personnel turnover at school headquarters.
"It has been very challenging," she said, "but it's been good work."
Many teachers also said they didn't believe the union had done enough to provide clarity on teacher evaluations, now that the state is requiring teachers to be judged on student achievement.
Baltimore is the only district in Maryland whose contract ties evaluations to compensation, and English said the union is negotiating parts of the evaluations that are not dictated by the state.
Campbell McLean, a teacher at Afya Public Charter School, said he supports this contract and that he and other teachers have been able to be more successful, financially and professionally, in Baltimore than ever before.
He said that while the implementation of the contract hasn't been "smooth," he believes that teachers should have faith. "We've always had pains in the neck, and we've always had red tape, but there was nothing on the other side," he said. "And now there is."