Maryland's teachers unions won a big victory at the state school board yesterday in a vote that observers say reflects a recent labor-friendly shift in the board.
The board also decided to begin studying the suitability of charter schools for Maryland, a month after such legislation failed in the 11th hour of the General Assembly.
The state board voted to require union representation for retired teachers who are rehired by local school systems to relieve teacher shortages.
Under laws approved by the Assembly in 1999 and 2000, retired teachers and principals are eligible to be rehired without losing their pension benefits -- permitting them to earn both salaries and retirement pay. More than 500 have been rehired by local systems for the current school year, with most going to Prince George's County.
Board members have spent months arguing over the measure. It came to be viewed as a referendum on collective bargaining.
"I think this is the direction this board is going," said Eric B. Schwartz, deputy executive director of the Maryland Association of Boards of Education. "There is more support for unions on this board, and that hasn't been the case in past years."
The board's 7-4 decision is indicative of Gov. Parris N. Glendening's strong support for unions. One of Glendening's recent board appointments was Walter S. Levin, who was the longtime lawyer for the Maryland State Teachers Association.
Supporters say retired teachers deserve to have the same rights and protections provided by unions for all of the state's other teachers. "The issue of the fairness ended up being very compelling," said Patricia Foerster, president of the Maryland State Teachers Association.
But the superintendents of Maryland's 24 school systems unanimously opposed the collective bargaining measure. "It is rare when all 24 superintendents agree on something," said state schools Superintendent Nancy S. Grasmick. The superintendents would rather continue hiring the retired teachers under individual contracts, she said.
Grasmick recommended that the board reconsider, but the panel refused -- one of the few times it has turned her down.
In agreeing to pursue a study of charter schools, board members were careful not to offer a blanket endorsement.
"I see charters as weakening public schools," said board member Reginald Dunn. But he agreed the board should take time, "so we can examine pros and cons."
For several years, the General Assembly has been debating legislation to encourage school systems to allow charter schools, but the legislation has never been passed.
Charter schools are public schools run by groups or institutions with contracts giving them public funding as well as varying degrees of independence from rules and regulations. They're typically free to hire their own teachers and pick their own instructional programs -- but their charters may not be renewed if student achievement is not up to par.
School districts technically have the authority to charter schools. But in practice, they haven't, because without a state law, organizations can't apply for the federal funds necessary to help with start-up costs.
State education officials say Maryland is one of 13 states without such laws.
So far, five Baltimore schools represent the closest that any Maryland system has come to charter schools, and state board members said they intend to tour these "quasi-charter" schools.
"It has very much stabilized the neighborhoods," said Grasmick, who said she supports charter schools with "appropriate oversight."