Baltimore teachers union and district leaders to return to negotiating table

As Baltimore school and teacher union officials prepare to return to the negotiating table next week, they said they don't expect to make significant changes to the tentative agreement that educators rejected Thursday and will concentrate instead on clearly explaining the terms of the innovative contract.

Bargaining teams for the Baltimore Teachers Union and the school district said they are optimistic that they can reach an agreement that educators will approve. The contract, which was one of the most contentious to be introduced in the city, was rejected by 58 percent of the 2,600 union members who cast ballots this week. The union represents about 6,500 school employees.

Officials on both sides said the contract's defeat showed that city educators needed more time and details about the agreement's most radical proposals, particularly the overhaul of how teachers would be compensated, promoted and evaluated.

"I take [Thursday]'s vote as teachers saying, 'What you're asking is extraordinarily different, and we need more time,'" schools CEO Andrés Alonso said in a news conference Friday. "I am 100 percent convinced that when we go back to the members, we will have a contract. It will pass next time."

But Alonso said that though the teachers union plans to bring the contract to another vote by Oct. 28 — when the current contract expires — he will suggest an extension.

The tentative agreement would eliminate the long-standing structure of "step increases," under which teachers are paid based on seniority and education degrees. Instead, it would provide six-figure salaries for an elite corps and tie the pay of all educators to how effective they are in the classroom and their pursuit of professional development, a vague provision that was at the heart of the opposition.

The contract also would give teachers unprecedented autonomy, allowing them to vote to change working conditions in their schools.

Alonso said that he did not anticipate that negotiating teams would be able to satisfy all the requests teachers wanted spelled out in order to approve the agreement, such as outlining an evaluation system.

That evaluative instrument will rely heavily on a system being devised by the Maryland State Department of Education that is not due to be ready until next year. Alonso belongs to the 21-member committee of educators from around the state charged with devising the new evaluation system.

"We know [the state system] is not going to be done in a month," Alonso said. "We cannot be making commitments to a framework that we don't know yet."

The state's system will have student achievement account for 50 percent of a teacher's evaluation and is part of a series of sweeping reforms being adopted by the state in the wake of winning Race to the Top funds, a federal program that encourages radical reforms to boost student achievement.

State schools Superintendent Nancy S. Grasmick will seek guidance from the U.S. Department of Education if the union votes down the contract again to determine the implications to the state's Race to the Top grant, according to spokeswoman Maureen Moran. The BTU was among the only unions in the state to sign the state's Race to the Top application.

On Friday, Alonso did address another concern from teachers about whether the school system could afford the contract, saying that city schools would adjust its budgets to accommodate the $60 million agreement.

The schools CEO and Marietta English, president of the teachers union, faced nearly 1,000 teachers at a conference Friday morning, an experience English said was "positive" as the union prepares an aggressive communication campaign on the contract.

"It's just a bump in the road, and an opportunity to move forward," English said.

Loretta Johnson, executive vice president of the American Federation of Teachers and chief negotiator for the Baltimore union, said she believed that the contract failed because of "fear about how teachers will be treated" and that many saw the defeat as a "win against their principals."

She said she was particularly happy to see the large turnout of about one-third of the union's members.

The only vote that drew as many members, union officials said, was in 2004 when about 4,000 educators voted against a proposal that would have rescinded their pay increases. Among the lowest turnouts was a vote last year in which less than 10 percent of a nearly 8,500 membership participated.

"We heard our members, and we're going to go back," Johnson said. "That's what the union is for."

But some teachers who voted against the contract said that unless more details emerge in the next few weeks, they do not plan to change their vote. Tom Proveaux, an English teacher of 33 years, said he thought the initiatives in the contract were great, but wanted to know how much test scores would factor into the new system.

"Our kids come to school hungry, they come to school broken in many ways, and when we're dealing with that it is not reflected in a test score," he said. "If we have to go back to ratification with the same thing, we'll just vote it down again."

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