The Howard County Board of Education canceled open negotiations with its two biggest educator unions after a court order to uphold the Public School Labor Relations Board's ruling that the unions' right to closed meetings is an enforceable and negotiable part of the Howard County Education Association's contract.
HCEA held those meetings anyway.
On Wednesday, Dec. 18, a judge in the Howard County Circuit Court issued a procedural ruling that both parties uphold the labor board's decision that negotiations should be held in closed session unless otherwise negotiated. That ruling denied a stay requested by the board to continuing negotiating in public, as the groups have been doing since last month in meetings attended by dozens of teachers and educational support staff.
A circuit decision on whether or not the labor board's decision should be upheld is expected "in a month or two," said the system's Chief of Staff Sue Mascaro.
But the board can't cancel negotiations, said HCEA President Paul Lemle, unless they discuss it with HCEA first.
"The meetings are agreed upon in advance, and just like the rest of the contract, you honor it," he said. "When you say you're going to negotiate, negotiate."
The school system is rescheduling the two meetings — originally scheduled for Wednesday, Dec. 18 with HCEA-ESP and Thursday, Dec. 19, with HCEA, for closed sessions in January.
But HCEA and HCEA-ESP went on with their meetings anyways, despite no representation from the board or system on Wednesday, to discuss their contract proposals with their members. On Thursday, the system's director of staff relations Ernesto Diaz came to the HCEA meeting, but only reiterated the board's position and answering a few questions before leaving.
The board decided in September to open negotiations to the public, which HCEA was in favor of with the caveat that the board sign a memorandum of understanding waiving the contract language that stipulates closed meetings. The board did not sign the MOU since, as Diaz said, doing so would undermine the board's position that is has that unilateral authority to open or close meetings.
Several legal actions follow the labor board's ruling that the closed meeting contract language should be honored, and HCEA and HCEA-ESP have filed a grievance against the school system, and has gone to the labor board for arbitration.
"We still want open meetings," Lemle said. "But we want them legally and contractually. We want them to have a discussion with us about it. … They open meetings unilaterally, and they closed meetings unilaterally."
But that's all within the board's rights, said Chairwoman Ellen Giles.
"It's the board's decision whether we open or close meetings," she said. "The board is the party conducting the meeting. … We're closing all negotiations and we believe that our position is correct. We do have the unilateral right."
Opening or closing meetings isn't under purview of the labor board, Giles said, but of the Open Meetings Compliance Board or the circuit court.
"The position is that the board has the authority regardless of what's in the contract," said Sue Mascaro, the system's chief of staff. "'Closed meetings' has been in the contract for year and years, but in the past, the board wasn't that interested in meeting in open. This is an new era of transparency and in alignment with Superintendent (Renee) Foose's vision."
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But the issue is about honoring contracts, Lemle said, and by cancelling meetings, the board is breaking the contract again.
"It doesn't matter how (closed meetings) got in the contract in the first place," he said. "It matters that it was agreed upon year after year. … When you agree to a contract you agree to all of it."
In a release canceling the meetings, Foose said she fully supported the opening of the meetings "in the spirit of transparency," and was saddened "that we need to take a step backwards and shut them out of the process that has such a significant impact on our workforce."
With more than 60 HCEA members at an open negotiations meeting in November, "the genie's out of the bottle" when it comes to Foose's proposal for their contract, Lemle said.
Under the current proposal from the school system, teachers won't be receiving a step increase in their salaries, and .5 percent cost-of-living raise.
This means Howard is continuing to fall behind other districts in the area when it comes to what teachers are paid, Lemle said.
According to date from HCEA, in Anne Arundel County, lifetime earnings for teachers has increased $289,000 since 2007. In Howard, lifetime earnings have gone up $194,000 in that same time. Montgomery County has the highest lifetime earnings among educators in the region, at a project $2.4 million in 2014. In comparison, Howard comes in third on the regional list with a projected $2.1 million in lifetime earnings.