Teacher's union president sees 'collaborative' future with Howard County school system

Howard County Education Association’s new president, Colleen Morris, says the leadership of her predecessor was the driving force behind resolving “a lot of issues” impacting educators in the public school system.

Collaboration between the teacher’s union and the school system dwindled under former Superintendent Renee Foose, Morris said. In an effort to restore the lines of communication with Central Office staff, the teacher’s union, under former president Paul Lemle, helped introduce new voices to the Board of Education in the 2016 election.

Morris said she hopes her presidency will follow in Lemle’s footsteps as the union continues rebuilding that collaboration to support educators alongside Interim Superintendent Michael Martirano.

An Oakland Mills High School graduate, Morris began a teaching career with the Howard County school system at Laurel Woods Elementary, where she taught kindergarten in 1991 — the same year she joined the union. In 1992, Morris moved to Forest Ridge Elementary to teach first grade and then to Guilford Elementary to teach pre-kindergarten in 2000.

The Columbia resident stayed at Guilford Elementary to teach math support and later second grade until July 2017.

As president of the teacher’s association, Morris is released from her teaching position in the school system and the association pays for her salary; however, not all locals have release positions.

Union presidents are elected to two-year terms and can remain in office for three consecutive terms. Lemle, who was term-limited, had been union president since 2011.

Morris said she learned about the union through her mother, who taught at Dunloggin Middle School. Morris joined her mother at union activities and when Morris became a teacher, she said she knew she had to join the union “to connect with educators.”

“Of course, I learned that the association does much more than connect educators,” Morris said. “One of the first classroom issues HCEA helped me with was when my students were losing instructional time because of lice that kept spreading” among them.

The union connected Morris with a health institute in Connecticut that guided Morris and school officials through the process to eliminate the lice infestation in her students.

Over the years, Lemle said Morris became more involved with the union and its negotiations committee.

“She has great experience with our contract negotiations because she’s been a leader of the teachers’ negotiations team for two decades,” Lemle said. “She knows every word of our agreement and what it means and who negotiated it.”

She’s also worked on membership recruitment and engagement and professional development for teachers, and served on the association’s board of directors and as secretary and treasurer.

“When Paul was leaving and we had the opportunity to have new leadership, I thought it would be a very exciting time to put my other skills to work,” Morris said. “There’s a lot to do, but I think as we move forward, the collaboration that we have with Central Office and the union that we did not have in the past is really going to help resolve issues in a more timely fashion.”

Support for educators decreased during the Foose era, Morris said, as class sizes increased and professional development faded. A lack of communication between the union and school officials created unnecessary tension, which she said “filtered down to our schools.”

The previous board had an “appointed board culture,” Lemle added, and accepted anything they were told by Foose or school staff. Incumbents Janet Siddiqui, Ellen Flynn Giles and Ann DeLacy were ousted in the 2016 election.

“By the same token, they really didn’t listen to teachers very well,” Lemle said. “I couldn’t be prouder of the board that we have now because they really try hard to be responsive to the whole community.”

In the past year, Morris said board members have created “a positive atmosphere” in the Central Office and prioritized educators and students. A significant change includes the restoration of elementary school spring conferences in the 2018-2019 school year, something that was removed from the 2016-2017 school calendar on Foose’s recommendation.

“This is the first calendar year that she actually took them out and it was one of the first things that Dr. Martirano and the union addressed in the calendar,” Morris said.

Kevin Gilbert, the school system’s director of diversity, equity and inclusion, said he’s grateful for the collaboration between the teacher’s association and Central Office. Gilbert and Morris are working together to expand the school system’s restorative justice practices to focus on students’ social and emotional development and create health relationships.

“My team is working with Mrs. Morris to facilitate training sessions with her members and HCEA is participating in a restorative justice work group that I have established to evaluate our current restorative justice practices in schools and expand effective strategies to support every student,” Gilbert said.

The union has also shared its support for redistricting and the acceleration of building the county’s new 13th high school as well as hiring Martirano as the permanent superintendent.

“In terms of the superintendent search, that’s where our association stands. We believe we’ve found him.”

Morris said teachers have been “rejuvenated and are excited, which of course, we all need in the classroom.”

Martirano said he will ensure the union and school system maintain a progressive partnership and communicate support for teachers, staff and students.

“Our staff should always have the confidence that their superintendent and representation have a strong relationship built on our shared goal to support student and staff success,” Martirano said. “I appreciate Colleen’s leadership and advocacy on behalf of our educators, especially during this time of transition, and look forward to continuing our work together.”

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