Both the Howard County Board of Education and the county's teachers union want to hold open, public negotiations this year for the first time in decades, but that process has hit a snag before it's even begun.

The Howard County Education Association filed a request with the Maryland Public School Labor Relations Board on Tuesday, Oct. 15, to determine whether open or closed negotiations is a legal bargaining topic.

HCEA President Paul Lemle thinks it is — it's even in the teachers' contract, which stipulates that all negotiations will be held behind closed doors.

But the board unanimously voted in closed session Sept. 26 to open negotiating meetings to the public for the contract that would go into effect July 1, 2014, and for which negotiations start Nov. 1. That decision impacts HCEA, the Howard County Administrators Association, the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees and the Howard County Education-Association-Educational Support Professionals.

"We decided to have open negotiations this year in large part to ensure and provide an added layer of transparency to a process that has historically been handled entirely behind closed doors," Board Chairman Frank Aquino said this week.

That's fine, Lemle said, because HCEA is in favor of open negotiations. The issue stems from the board essentially violating its contract with HCEA by making that decision without first consulting the union.

At the board's meeting Thursday, Oct. 10, Lemle presented members with a draft memorandum of understanding that would waive the section of the contract that calls for closed meetings, and would allow the two parties to have open, public meetings as the new contract is negotiated.

"We see a strong benefit to an open process," Lemle said at the meeting. "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."

But school system spokeswoman Rebecca Amani-Dove said deciding whether to hold negotiations in open or closed session is an "illegal topic of collective bargaining. She said that since the board has the authority to determine whether or not to open any meeting, including negotiations, to the public, it would be "inappropriate" for the board to sign a memorandum of understanding with HCEA.

That's where the labor board comes in, Lemle said. In Maryland's Education Code, there are topics that must be bargained, like "all matters that relate to salaries, wages, hours and working conditions," and things that cannot be negotiated like the "school calendar, the maximum number of students assigned to a class or any other matter that is precluded by applicable statutory law."

HCEA, Lemle said, needs to know whether or not it was illegal to negotiate closed meetings as stipulated in its contract.

Aquino said he couldn't speak to "how or why a particular provision winds up in a contract in a certain year, or why it was not focused upon in our negotiation."

There are lots of issues discussed in negotiations and the board and HCEA focus on different things in a given year, he added.

"There are, on occasion, contracts that include things that don't have to be there because of applicable law," Aquino said.

In this case, both Amani-Dove and Aquino said the applicable law is the Open Meetings Act. Both said that law makes it the board's prerogative to open or close meetings.

Amani-Dove said negotiations with HCEA have been open in the past, but have largely been closed. Closed negotiations have occurred since 1990, but Lemle said as recently as 2000, HCEA-ESP held open negotiations with the board.

HCEA also has filed a "bad faith claim" with the labor board, Lemle said, alleging that by voting to violate the union's contract, the board is hindering the negotiating process.