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Howard teachers union election complaint denied by circuit court

Jody Zepp, center, Maryland Teacher of the Year for 2013, is seeking to lead the 5,500-member Howard County Education Association. She claims she has faced an effort by HCEA leaders to thwart her campaign.
Jody Zepp, center, Maryland Teacher of the Year for 2013, is seeking to lead the 5,500-member Howard County Education Association. She claims she has faced an effort by HCEA leaders to thwart her campaign. (Handout photo)

A Howard County Circuit Court judge has ruled against a teacher who claims her own union is throwing up roadblocks against her bid for union leadership.

Maryland Teacher of the Year Jody Zepp is challenging incumbent union president Paul Lemle to lead the 5,500-member Howard County Education Association. The union's bi-annual membership election began Jan. 26 and ends Feb. 20.

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Zepp, a government and psychology teacher at Hammond High School, filed a request last month in Circuit Court for a temporary restraining order, claiming she has faced an orchestrated effort by HCEA leaders to thwart her campaign.

Her attorney, former Board of Education candidate Mike Smith, told Judge Dennis Sweeney on Monday that the union has placed limits on Zepp's ability to use email to reach educators for campaign purposes, prevented her from taking leave days to visit school union representatives and imposed a gag order on her at a candidates' forum, preventing her from saying anything negative about Lemle's leadership of the union.

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"I have endured horrific constraints and undemocratic principles for over a month, not to mention an attempt to defame and degrade my accomplishments as a Howard County teacher and the achievements of my students," Zepp wrote in a letter to the community posted on her website.

Lemle and HCEA treasurer Colleen Morris have denied Zepp's allegations, saying the restrictions she mentions are part of campaigning rules that have been in place since 2011.

Sweeney heard both sides Monday and in a ruling Tuesday denied Zepp's request stating that she did not meet the burden of proof required and deferring parts of her argument to the Maryland Public School Labor Relations Board.

Zepp filed a similar complaint with the labor relations board, but that case is not expected to be heard until after the election.

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First elected in 2011, Lemle is seeking a third term as union president. He has regularly clashed with the Board of Education and school system leaders over the past four years, including during a contract dispute last year that lingered into the summer months.

Lemle ran unopposed in 2013, and acknowledged he was surprised to see Zepp file her candidacy Dec. 17 — the last day to apply. He said he believes Zepp was encouraged to run by the school system, and her "sudden interest" in the position is an example of school officials attempting to interfere with union business.

"It's obvious that management has a preferred candidate in this race," he said.

In a statement, Howard County Superintendent Renee Foose declined to comment, saying, "this election is an issue for the HCEA members to decide."

Zepp denied that she was persuaded to run.

"My relationship with the superintendent is (the same as) it would be with any superintendent who has had a teacher of the year," she said. "There are meetings with central office personnel because I am a teacher of the year with regard to banners, speeches, events and opportunities for appearances."

In October, Zepp was named Maryland Teacher of the Year, and is in the running for National Teacher of the Year, to be announced in April.

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