For decades, negotiations between the Howard County Board of Education and county’s teachers union have been held behind closed doors. That’s about to change.

In closed session Sept. 26, the board unanimously voted to conduct negotiations in public for the fiscal year 2015 contract, which goes into effect July 1, 2014, and for which negotiations start Nov. 1.

The decision was made public Thursday, Oct. 10, with the board’s public approval of minutes from that meeting.

The decision impacts the Howard County Education Association, the Howard County Administrators Association, the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, and the Howard County Education Association-Educational Support Professionals.

“Fostering a culture of collaboration, trust and shared responsibility is a guiding principle of the school system,” Board Chairman Frank Aquino said. “Holding open sessions will enhance the collaborative and professional collective bargaining environment and will go a long way toward transparency with the broader community.”

Howard County schools spokeswoman Rebecca Amani-Dove said that negotiations have been open at times in the past, like from 1986-87, but largely have been closed. Negotiations have been closed to the public since 1990.

HCEA President Paul Lemle said HCEA-ESP has held some open negotiations as recently as 2000, but in 2002 HCEA-ESP and the board mutually agreed to remove that provision from the support professionals' contract.

Lemle spoke before the board at its Thursday meeting, and presented a draft memorandum of understanding which would waive the closed meetings provision of the master agreement between the union and board, and allow for open, public meetings as the two bodies negotiate contracts.

“We see a strong benefit to an open process,” Lemle said. “Everyone can see how bargaining works for the benefit of public schools and the public school employees. Great public schools are not built just with bricks, but with a good contract and good relationships between the school system and its employees.”

Amani-Dove said deciding whether to hold negotiations in open or closed session is an “illegal topic of collective bargaining,” but the issue is included in the agreement signed earlier this year by the board and HCEA. Article 2, Section C of the contract states “negotiation sessions shall be closed meetings held as frequently as necessary, at a time other than the regular school day for students, to complete the negotiations by the stated completion date.”

Though Lemle said the memorandum of understanding would be waive the closed meetings provision in HCEA’s current contract, Amani-Dove said the board has the authority to determine whether or not to open any meeting, including negotiations, to the public, so it would be “inappropriate” for the board to sign a memorandum of understanding with HCEA.

“Under the Open Meetings Act, it’s the board’s prerogative to determine whether meetings will be open or closed,” she said. “Our board decided to open the meetings so that negotiations would be completely transparent to our many employees and the tax payers.”

Lemle’s presentation came during the time regularly included in the board’s agenda for HCEA updates. Lemle assured the board HCEA “is ready to go down this path and bargain in the spirit of openness and collegiality.”

He also requested the board schedule a community meeting between the union and board members, similar to meetings regularly held with other stakeholder groups like Bright Minds, the Community Advisory Council and the PTAs.

“Given that we represent nearly 7,000 employees, we believe we should be able to communicate with you the way these other groups do,” he said. “We believe that kind of meeting would be invaluable.”