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Baltimore Teachers Union election spurs allegations of voter suppression, campaign violations

Thousands of teachers will have the chance Wednesday to vote in the most contentious Baltimore Teachers Union election in years, a race that has divided educators and been peppered with allegations of voter suppression and campaign violations.

Union President Marietta English, who first assumed the position in 1998, is running on her record of negotiating the past four contracts. She’s part of the Progressive Caucus, a powerful group within the union.

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A coalition of outspoken teachers put together a competing slate of candidates hoping to challenge the status quo and forge a leadership team they say will better suit an era in which teachers unions across the nation are harnessing their power and demanding action. They’re running as The Union We Deserve slate.

“We don’t want a union that relies on business as usual,” said Zach Taylor, one of The Union We Deserve teachers.

All but two executive board positions are contested.

English’s supporters point to her track record at the negotiating table, while calling her challengers inexperienced and unready to lead a union. When a massive budget deficit in 2016 threatened the jobs of 1,000 staff members, they say, English and her team fought back to save positions. She launched a safety task force after multiple educators were assaulted at school, which just released its recommendations. Under her leadership, the union also launched a campaign to boost the city’s plummeting enrollment by knocking on families’ doors and lobbying them to send their children to the city’s public schools.

She said she wants to “continue the work we’ve started” on making schools safer and contracts stronger. “The team I’ve put together is about doing that,” English said.

But members have been left wanting more, says Diamonté Brown, a Booker T. Washington Middle School teacher running against English for president. They believe the current leadership has lost touch with the people who work in schools every day. The team promises more accountability and support for the nearly 7,000 members, and a greater emphasis on promoting social justice. In response to claims that they’re inexperienced, Taylor pointed to candidates’ histories of working with district officials on efforts to recruit and retain more black teachers and increase support for transgender students, as well as their work lobbying in Annapolis. Some candidates have worked as union building representatives.

The group alleges the union attempted to suppress voter turnout.

The election will be held from 7:30 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. Wednesday, which Brown said leaves educators to “either run out during their lunch periods or planning periods to vote, or to battle rush-hour traffic during the small windows of time before and after their school day starts.”

The idea of holding elections chiefly during school hours has rankled educators before. In 2000, a teacher running for president against English sought an injunction to delay the election, The Baltimore Sun reported at the time, arguing that union leadership “engaged in a plan and conspiracy to retain and consolidate their positions” and “have used both time and location constraints to make it physically impossible for many BTU members to cast their ballots.” A judge denied the teacher’s request.

Both then and now, candidates hoping to oust incumbents have argued there are too few polling places. This year, there are six. Turnout is typically low in BTU elections.

“The current leadership has made voting locations remote or unreasonably far for many of our members,” Brown said. “There are no polling places on the southeast side of the district,” which is where many candidates on her slate are based.

She added that many teachers have had their request for absentee ballots denied. A push last year to amend the union’s constitution to require all voting be mail-in failed. Under the current code, absentee voting by mail is permitted only for member who are ill, on vacation or on a tour of duty. The co-chairs of the union’s election committee posted a video on the union website this week saying that they have not denied absentee ballots to any member who met the code.

Thomas Frasier, one of the co-chairs, said the committee has told Brown’s slate of candidates to stop instructing members to fill out absentee ballots if they did not fit any of the three criteria. In an email, he said 48 of 58 absentee ballot requests were denied by the committee. He said the polling places and times are the same as previous years. Brown’s slate tried to “subvert the in person voting process and turn it into a mail ballot election,” he said.

English said decisions about who gets approved for absentee ballots, the locations of polling places and voting times are made by the election committee. While committee members are chosen by current union leadership, she said she has separated herself from their work because she is a candidate.

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The Progressive Caucus has also sounded the alarm about possible campaign violations. In a letter sent Friday to the BTU election committee, caucus chair Corey Debnam wrote that it has been the group’s “commitment to run a clean and honest race that follows and abides by the rules issued.” But in the past month, Debnam wrote, the caucus has learned of “numerous complaints and violations.” The letter did not elaborate on what they believe happened.

“However, we feel that many of these concerns have not been addressed,” he wrote. “The non-responsiveness and delayed responses from the committee raises serious concerns. There have been several clear violations of the elections rules and procedures that have warranted maximum penalties for candidates involved.”

A Belmont Elementary School teacher aide, Arshay Bacon, said she complained after someone from The Union We Deserve slate came to her front door and asked to speak with her. She wasn’t home at the time, she said, but her family said they left a brochure for her. The group should not have had access to her home address, she said.

“I did send an email to the election commission, and I haven’t seen anything back from them,” said Bacon, who supports English.

English, who makes about $150,000 as union president, said she’s also fielded complaints from people who have gotten campaign-related emails to their city schools’ addresses.

Last Thursday, the election committee co-chairs wrote in a statement that the “Baltimore Teachers Union did not distribute membership names, addresses or phone numbers to any party or parties.”

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Frasier said those opposing English had violated several rules governing the union elections, including using email addresses to contact people and campaigning on school grounds. He has given them a warning, he said.

The campaigning has divided educators, some say, leading to heated exchanges on social media. Tanya Lassiter, a school secretary who has worked in the district for 13 years, called this the “nastiest election” she’s seen play out.

“We have to become one union,” said Lassiter, who formerly supported The Union We Deserve slate but has switched to English’s side.

It seems unlikely that members will hear candidates go head-to-head with their ideas for the union’s future.

The Union We Deserve called for members-only debate between candidates, to be hosted by Karsona “Kaye” Wise Whitehead of WEAA and streamed to educators. Campaign leaders say they emailed English to invite her, and made the request during a taped news conference.

English said she has not received any such request and does not plan to engage in a debate.

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