With Cheryl Bost, the new president of the Teachers Association of Baltimore County in place, the union can now decide whether to "work to rule," picket or take another kind of job action to protest the lack of raises this year.
The union's 5,900 members are upset with County Executive James T. Smith Jr., who in June rejected a tentative deal giving them pay raises in exchange for higher health care contributions. Smith said the county couldn't afford it.
"He really needs to pay teachers more," said Bost, who blames poor salaries and pensions for Baltimore County's problem retaining its 8,200 teachers. Every year, union leaders have said, the school system loses 1,000 teachers.
Bost succeeds Mark Beytin, who retired after serving the maximum three terms as TABCO president.
Beytin said it will be hard to secure pay raises, but he said Bost, who was union vice president for six years, brings close ties to key officials, energy and understanding to the task.
"Probably more than any vice president we've had, she's been able to get in there and work with people in the school system," he said.
After 14 years of teaching, Bost takes the TABCO helm today.
Bost, who at 36 is TABCO's youngest president and its first woman since 1981, has an ambitious agenda.
"It's going to be different -- not being with all of my colleagues and not greeting the kids on the first day," said Bost, who taught all of those 14 years at Mars Estates Elementary School in Essex. "But I'm looking forward to the new challenges."
Bost said she wants teachers to have more say. She would like teachers to be partners with principals in the operation of schools, and she wants the union to join top school system administrators in making policy decisions affecting teachers.
"Teachers have to be empowered to make their own decisions because when teachers feel empowered, positive things happen in the school," she said.
In a school system that is centralizing decision-making, the goals may be difficult to achieve.
But Ray Suarez, a former TABCO president, said Bost's natural ability to communicate the needs of teachers will help her.
"She can cut through the jargon and explain what goes on, and that's extremely important when most reforms come top down," he said.
The daughter of an air traffic controller from Pittsburgh, Bost knew she wanted to work with children since she began baby-sitting at age 12. By high school, she knew she wanted to be a teacher. In college, she worked as a nanny.
After graduating from Edinboro University of Pennsylvania near Erie, Bost joined Mars Estates Elementary, one of Baltimore County's tougher schools because many of its pupils come from highly transient, low-income families.
The school is now one of the county's success stories.
"She created achievement in kids for whom others couldn't make a difference," said Roger Proudfoot, the principal.
Last school year, Bost was Baltimore County's Teacher of the Year.
Proudfoot said Bost's pupils responded to her because they knew she cared, taking them to dinner, Hershey Park and camping as rewards.
Ann Ritchey, a TABCO board member who teaches fifth grade at Bear Creek Elementary School in Dundalk, said Bost's experience in a challenging school will serve her well as union president.
"I always run into leaders who forget what it's like, and I don't think she will," Ritchey said.
Bost said she will make an effort to remember where she came from: She plans on having lunch in a school cafeteria at least once a week, and she will proctor standardized tests at Mars Estates.
"I don't want to get away from the classroom," she said.