City teachers pass landmark contract in second vote

Baltimore City teachers overwhelmingly passed a landmark contract Wednesday that will provide the opportunity to earn considerable pay increases while tying their evaluations to student performance. The agreement puts the district at the forefront of a national reform movement, education leaders said.

"Something historic has happened here in Baltimore," Marietta English, president of the Baltimore Teachers Union, said after the votes had been counted.

According to an unofficial tally, union members ratified the revised agreement by a 1,902-1,045 vote, just weeks after the original proposal was defeated by a wide margin. The earlier rejection spurred an aggressive campaign by the union to inform members about the details of the contract.

"Our teachers have shown the country how much they love their profession and their students," English said. "Teachers in Baltimore now have the opportunity to determine their own destiny, and to choose their own career path."

The contract takes effect immediately, making Baltimore a leader in efforts to link student performance to teacher evaluations and pay, and to reward teachers who take on leadership roles in their schools, according to U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan and other education leaders.

"Baltimore is now one of a handful of cities that is leading the nation in innovative contracts and making teachers real partners in reform," Duncan said in a statement.

Under the new pact, teachers will no longer be paid based on step increases, which are automatic raises based on tenure or the number of degrees acquired. Instead, they will climb a four-tier career ladder, which will see an elite corps of teachers earning six-figure salaries. Teachers will also have the opportunity to vote on working conditions at their schools, such as longer school days.

In addition, in the last two years of the contract, teachers' pay will be based on an evaluation system not yet drafted by the Maryland State Department of Education that would tie a proposed 50 percent of student performance to teacher evaluations. The contract could also serve as an example to other districts as the state works to reform how teacher evaluations are conducted.

"Overall, I think it is a really big win for teachers, for the district and for the union," said Emily Cohen, district policy director at the National Council on Teacher Quality. "This a great example of the union and the district working togther. If we improve teacher quality, that will impact student achievement."

The three-year pact, which is retroactive to the start of the 2010-2011 school year, includes an automatic 2 percent pay raise and a $1,500 stipend.

"I am happy for my teachers more than for the district," said city schools CEO Andrés Alonso. "I think we are at a critical point in the national conversation about reform."

Alonso said that if the contract had been defeated, he feared that teachers would have been blamed for obstructing reform, and their hard work in classrooms across the city would have been forgotten.

"I am happy that we can continue to move forward because they have embraced something that is different and something that is so much about responsibility and excellence," he said.

City teachers expressed mixed views about the looming evaluation system as they headed to the polls Wednesday. Jennifer Sierra, a teacher of seven years, said she voted against the contract because she was worried about how teachers would be evaluated.

"I have concerns about tying our evaluations to student performance when I get 11th-graders who I have to explain the difference between a vowel and a consonant," Sierra said. "I know the work has to be done, but it's so hard when they come to us with such deficits."

Other teachers believed that they had more to gain than to fear in the new contract.

"It's a good deal for the teachers," said Judy Egerton, a city teacher of six years. "If you have faith in yourself, there's nothing to worry about. I think it's a great opportunity to gain financially for what you do, not because you hung around."

Teachers had rejected the contract by 400 votes last month, primarily because they said they didn't have enough information about how their performances would be based on student achievement and how they could climb the new career ladder.

After negotiations between union and school officials resumed, the union unveiled a second tentative agreement that was largely unchanged but added details that teachers had requested. The most substantial revisions in the tentative agreement released Oct. 26 addressed specifically how teachers will climb the career ladder.

In the past few weeks, the union waged an organized campaign to better inform its members about the contract. Those efforts included town hall meetings, robocalls and literature.

The union's parent organization, the American Federation of Teachers, also deployed about 15 representatives from around the country to explain the contract.

Unlike in some other cities, such as Washington, Baltimore union and district officials reached an agreement without much divisiveness.

Michael Casserly, executive director of the Council of Great City Schools, an organization that represents large urban districts, said the ratification is a breakthrough for civil dialogue among school districts and unions. "It is a good contract, an innovative contract and one which was reached with no acrimony," he said. "Hats off to Baltimore. They have done something that few if any other big city has pulled off."

Cohen and Casserly said they believe the main features in the contract will likely hold up over time. The overwhelming support from teachers and the administration creates a constructive climate for solving future problems, Casserly said.

Cohen believes the contract — estimated to cost the district about $60 million over the three years — is sustainable financially through budget adjustments.

English said that the union will continue to work with the more than 1,000 teachers who voted against the contract and the nearly 4,000 teachers who didn't vote.

"It's our responsibility to help them understand and allay their fears," English said, adding that committees would begin meeting as early as Thursday. "Now the real work begins."

Highlights of new teacher contract

--A 2 percent, retroactive pay increase and a $1,500 stipend will take effect in this school year.

--Pay in the last two years of the contract will be based on a yet-to-be-determined system that ties student performance to teacher evaluations.

--Teachers will climb a four-tiered career ladder that will pay some more than $100,000 and encourage more pursuit of professional development and school-based leadership.

--All schools will employ "school-based options" in the third year of the contract — a plan under which 80 percent of teachers in a school could help set working conditions not outlined in the general contract, such as a longer workday or more planning time.

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