HCEA Lemle

Howard County Education Association President Paul Lemle talks to HCEA members following a Board of Education and Howard County Council joint meeting. (Photo by Blair Ames / June 6, 2014)

As negotiations on a contract for Howard County's more than 6,800 educators appear to be heading long into the summer, those involved agree on at least one thing: They would prefer the negotiations be open to the public.

But ask why or when negotiations will be open to the public and you'll receive a finger pointing blame in the other direction.

With negotiations stalled, Howard County Education Association officials have already given their negotiating team the go-ahead to declare an impasse and bring a state mediator into the fold.

Meanwhile, Board of Education chair Ellen Flynn Giles said the board has not received any communication from HCEA on this development, and Superintendent Renee Foose is calling for open negotiations "moving forward."

Foose declined to say Friday if negotiations would be made open as soon as next week, but if both sides agree to open the process to the public, it can be done this late in the game.

"We need transparency so teachers can have the information that is critical to them," Foose said.

The Howard County Board of Education will be meeting in closed session Monday, but Giles said she was unaware if the meeting will center on contract negotiations.

If no progress is made early next week, either by agreeing to an impasse or opening negotiations, HCEA President Paul Lemle said his organization would move to declare a stalemate in negotiations.

"The board has failed to properly understand, listen to, and ultimately to value its educators," Lemle said Friday.

The board and teacher association have the option of declaring an impasse, which would bring the state Public School Labor Relations Board into negotiations. If an agreement cannot be reached with a state mediator, the process then enters arbitration, where the labor relations board hands down a decision.

Contract negotiations with HCEA, which represents about 5,500 educators, have been messy since September when there was a dispute over whether the negotiations should be made public.

Although the Board of Education voted to make negotiations public and HCEA supported those public negotiations, the teachers union filed suit with the state Public School Labor Relations Board, alleging that the school board had violated its contract with the teachers union by not first negotiating the matter with HCEA.

The Labor Relations Board subsequently ruled in HCEA's favor and in December, the Board of Education voted to continue its long-standing practice of closed negotiations with the teachers union.

HCEA has been advocating for a multi-year contract agreement, while the school board and superintendent have proposed a one-year deal that includes up to a 5 percent salary increase, which includes an immediate 3 percent COLA increase for all teachers effective July 1.

"We stand for teachers," Foose said. "We are offering them a generous package."

The Board of Education has already reached tentative contract agreements with the American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees (AFSCME), which represents custodial, maintenance, grounds and warehouse staff, the Howard County Administrators Association (HCAA) and the Howard County Food Service Association.

Making a statement

HCEA members showed up en masse Thursday to the quarterly meeting of the Howard County Council and Board of Education at the Central Branch library in Columbia.

Although there was no discussion on contract negotiations on the agenda, about 80 educators filled the small meeting room during a nearly 40-minute session holding signs that read "We √ote" and "Police √ Firefighters √ Educators ?" as they tried to bring attention to the ongoing contract negotiations.

There was also no public comment period during the meeting, but near the end of the session, Council chair Calvin Ball asked if board and council members had any additional topics they would like to address. After a moment of silence, Lemle chimed in from the audience, asking if elected officials would support educators as they have police and fire and rescue departments.

Shortly thereafter the meeting was adjourned without Lemle's comment being acknowledged.

"It was really disappointing to see the superintendent and board run out of that room when they were asked if they would treat their employees with the same fairness and respect that the county council is treating its employees," Lemle said.

Giles defended the board's actions Friday, saying negotiations were not on the agenda and that is not the meeting to voice those concerns.

"I don't know what he [Lemle] expected to happen," she said.