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State Labor Board orders Harford school officials not to interfere with union activities

Maryland's Public School Labor Relations Board has ordered Harford County Public Schools to post a notice to employees that it will not interfere with permitted union activities conducted within school facilities.

The order is contained in a decision issued April 4 in which the Labor Board concluded HCPS officials had illegally banned the local teachers union's leader from most school facilities for nine months during the 2014-15 school year, effectively preventing him from conducting union-related business as permitted by state law.

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The notice, which must be posted in every public school building, states, in part:

"We will not deny union representatives access to HCPS buildings based on their participation in activities of the union."

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"We will not in any other manner interfere with, intimidate, restrain, coerce or discriminate against you because of the exercise of rights guaranteed to you" by state education law.

According to the Maryland Code, "A public school employer and employee organization may not interfere with, intimidate, restrain, coerce or discriminate against any public school employee because of the exercise of his rights" to form, join and participate in the activities of employee organizations.

Posting of the order is required to be completed by April 18, and it must stay up in a conspicuous location for 60 days.

The order is the culmination of a complaint the Harford County Education Association, which represents 3,200 teachers, filed with the Labor Board against the Harford County Board of Education after school officials banned Ryan Burbey, the union's president, from all school buildings in October 2014.

The ban followed an alleged argument betweenBurbey and a YMCA-sponsored after school program coordinator atEmmorton Elementary School. The ban, which lapsed on June 30, 2015, covered everyHCPS building, except the school system headquarters in Bel Air.

In its opinion, the Labor Board concluded the allegations against Burbey were unfounded and HCPS officials committed an "unfair labor practice" in banning him contrary to state laws protecting public school employees collective bargaining and unionization rights.

In a statement released Thursday, Harford Board of Education President Nancy Reynolds said: "The Board has reviewed the decision of the PSLRB. The Board believes that its position in this case was meritorious and well supported by the facts. However in the interest of reaching common ground with HCEA, bringing this matter to a close and avoiding further litigation, it will comply with the order of the PSLRB."

Kristy Anderson, general counsel for the Maryland State Education Association, the HCEA's parent organization, called the Labor Board decision "a good decision and a fair decision" and noted the directive to post the notice of employee rights was "the only remedy left," since the ban has expired.

Anderson said Wednesday the union wants to "move forward in a positive way," which, she added, "hopefully is a goal on everybody's part."

The dispute

According to the Labor Board's opinion, on Oct. 1, 2014, Burbey was inside Emmorton Elementary on union business after the school day when a parent came to the front door and knocked, trying to gain access to pick up his child's homework after school. Because the school's principal had a policy prohibiting visitors after the school day, Burbey asked the after school-program coordinator, whom he saw in the hallway, to let the parent into the building.

The coordinator refused, citing the principal's policy, and Burbey said he told the coordinator the principal was in his office, because he had just left him. The coordinator, however, said that didn't matter, as the policy was nobody was admitted after 4 p.m.

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According to Burbey's account, he shook his head, said "It doesn't make any sense," walked away and had no further contact with the coordinator. In her account, however, the coordinator claims Burbey used a curse word, became upset when she wouldn't let the parent in and called her a name as he walked away.

Citing state law which allows them to deny access to school facilities to any person who acts in a way "that disrupts or disturbs the normal education functions of the institution," school officials sent a letter to Burbey banning him from all school buildings, except HCPS headquarters in Bel Air, for the remainder of the 2014-15 school year.

A complaint has been filed with the Maryland Public School Labor Relations Board on behalf of Ryan Burbey, president of the county teachers' union, after Harford County Public Schools officials banned him from entering school buildings.

Burbey denied the allegations about his conduct. School officials refused to discuss their actions when questioned by The Aegis, their legal counsel saying at the time the dispute was an "internal matter." The union filed a complaint with the Labor Board.

Although the ban ran out on July 1,2015, the school system persisted in denying any wrongdoing and asked the Labor Board to dismiss the union's complaint outright.

The Labor Board, however, refused and instead issued a scathing seven-page opinion in which it castigated HCPS officials for their actions.

Labor Board findings

Concluding that HCPS officials' actions against Burbey "had no basis," the Labor Board said it was imposing a secondary remedy requiring the posting of a notice that HCPS would not violate the employees' rights under collective bargaining laws.

The board also found school officials could not substantiate their claim that Burbey was banned because he disrupted school activities contrary to state law.

A state administrative judge, who conducted fact-finding in the case with the consent of both parties, concluded the after-school program coordinator's version of her encounter with Burbey "'most likely than not' did not occur," the Labor Board noted.

The Labor Board also noted that the administrative judge, Jennifer M. Carter Jones, concluded HCPS officials' actions "had a negative impact on the ability of Mr. Burbey and HCEA, in general, to carry out the business of HCEA."

"The ban made it almost impossible for Mr. Burbey to meet face-to-face with teachers and HCEA building representatives because all these meetings had to take place after school hours at an off-site location," the opinion continues. "The ban further prevented Mr. Burbey from recruiting members to HCEA, and conducting in-service and professional development assemblies and HCEA's monthly representative assembly.

"The ban also prevented Mr. Burbey from attending public input sessions, which were conducted by the Superintendent, the County Board and the County Executive, and related to the county budget, as the sessions took place at HCPS buildings."

"In sum," the opinion states, "the ban prevented Mr. Burbey from being an effective spokesperson for HCEA."

The president of the Harford County Education Association, which represents 3,200 teachers and counselors in Harford County Public Schools, has been banned from entering any public school building other than the administration building in Bel Air because he allegedly cursed at an after-school program staff member.

The Labor Board also noted that prior to the ban, HCPS and the teachers union "were engaged in a number of contentious matters."

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"Most relevant to the instant case," the opinion notes, HCEA had filed a grievance against HCPS for requiring union representatives to file a facilities form before they could conduct meetings in schools. The grievance was filed Sept. 11, 2014, two and a half weeks before the incident involving Burbey on Oct. 1 at Emmorton Elementary.

Moving on

Burbey noted Monday that the ban was in effect for just for the 2014-2015 school year, and he has been able to visit schools since last July 1 and throughout the current academic year.

"The entire time we maintained that what's alleged to have happened didn't happen," he said. "I'm hopeful that this is turning a corner, and we can build a more cooperative atmosphere and put this [incident] in the past."

Burbey called the situation "an unfortunate misstep for the relationship between HCPS and HCEA."

"Hopefully, we can build a better atmosphere moving forward," he said.

Burbey said some schools have been "very receptive, others are less so" when he has visited this year to meet with union members.

He also said last year's ban affected the union's ability to communicate with members and recruit new members.

"I really just want to put this in the past," he stressed. "The big thing for us is really moving forward, all of us, HCPS and HCEA."

Aegis staff member David Anderson contributed to this report.

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