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Teachers vote this week

The Baltimore Sun

The Baltimore Teachers Union election Wednesday features two longtime rivals who have taken each other to court before - and aren't afraid to do so again.

Sharon Y. Blake, who is running for president of the union's teacher unit, defeated incumbent Marietta English by two votes when the women first squared off in 2000. Blake served as president until 2002, when English won the position back, and Blake's supporters sued to contest the validity of the election process.

Now Blake is trying to unseat English again. She is demanding a paper trail of the ballots cast and has hired former City Solicitor Neal M. Janey Sr. to represent her. English said the union has hired an outside company to conduct the election, and she doesn't know why Blake is so concerned.

The election is, in some ways, a referendum on the leadership of city schools chief Andres Alonso, who is finishing his first year on the job. English called for Alonso's ouster last fall when the union and the school system were in a dispute over teacher planning time. Asked what the biggest difference is between her and Blake, English replied that her opponent is "pro-management."

"I think there needs to be an effort [by] the union leadership to work collaboratively with the system," Blake said.

Two other teachers, Joseph Gwin at Northwestern High and William Krehnbrink at Collington Square Elementary/Middle, are also running for president. Both like Alonso's reforms. Unlike Blake and English, neither is running with a slate of candidates for other union offices.

The union has about 8,000 members, 6,000 of them teachers. Loretta Johnson, president of the paraprofessional chapter since 1975, is running for re-election unopposed.

Turnout in the union's elections has been extremely low in the past. Typically, only about 10 percent of the membership votes.

Again this year, some teachers interviewed were unaware that an election is coming up. They said teachers are disengaged and don't participate because the union isn't addressing issues that matter to them.

"The issues important to me are class load and class size, and I don't feel that's been addressed at all," said Mark Miazga, an English teacher at Baltimore City College. He has had as many as 38 students in a class this year, compared with 25 when he started teaching seven years ago.

Doug Fireside, a science teacher at New Song Academy, said the union isn't promoting the creation of quality schools. "In their zealousness to protect teachers, they're not looking at the larger picture of creating schools where teachers feel empowered," said Fireside, who is helping to start the Baltimore Civitas School, one of six new middle/high schools. "Teachers are, I think, asking for a little less protection and a little more freedom."

For example, Fireside said the union shouldn't resist longer work days for teachers in schools that want them. "We're at this pinnacle moment with Alonso," he said. "It's an amazingly exciting time for teachers and for kids. To be supported by a guy who gets it, I'd like to see the union jump out in front of that. What are they protecting that points to success?"

Alonso said he wants to work with whoever wins the election. "Everyone has a role in remaking this system for the better, and perhaps the role of the union is potentially second to none," he wrote in an e-mail to The Sun. "I want a partnership, since the relationship cannot simply be about imposing or resisting change or pointing out flaws or dysfunction on any side. It has to be about finding solutions."

English said that she, too, wants a partnership, but that system officials have not made the union feel like an equal partner.

The union's leader for the next two-year term will earn a teacher's salary plus a stipend, which English says varies from year to year, but is usually about $15,000.

Whoever wins will be expected to respond to concerns about teacher safety. A video of a teacher being beaten was highly publicized recently, and a 13-year-old student allegedly attempted to rape a staff member at a middle school this month.

English has openly criticized the system for failing to report instances of school violence; Alonso has asked her to provide specifics.

The city's 400 Filipino teachers are represented on both the English and Blake slates, a victory for a group whose hiring initially prompted complaints from the union. Aileen Mercado, a Canton Middle teacher profiled by The Sun during the 2005-2006 school year and the president of the city's Filipino teachers organization, said she was honored when English asked her to join her ticket. She said her candidacy for one of the four member-at-large positions represents the Filipino teachers' inclusion in the school system.

In an interview, English acknowledged that the union should have reached out to the Filipino teachers earlier. "We try to correct our mistakes," she said.

English, 61, began teaching in the city schools in 1968. She lists among her accomplishments an 8 1/2 percent raise negotiated for teachers over the next two years, even as the system cuts its budget. The union also is in a partnership with Coppin State University to provide courses to the membership, and the system convened a task force on school safety at English's request.

If re-elected, English said, she wants to build a state-of-the-art conference center and office building for the union, including an exercise room. She said she would also push for the system to give the union control of teachers' professional development.

Blake, 57, is a 34-year veteran of the system. After her 2002 defeat, she returned to the classroom, teaching at Frederick Douglass High. She is now the social studies "instructional support teacher" at the Institute for Business and Entrepreneurship on the Walbrook campus, teaching one class daily and supporting other social studies teachers.

If she wins, she said, she would make recommendations to improve school safety, such as giving teachers wireless electronic communication devices to use in emergencies. "Reforming schools is union work," Blake said, adding that her philosophy is inspired by the late Sandra Feldman, former president of the American Federation of Teachers and of the teachers union in New York City, where Alonso later worked.

Krehnbrink, 60, a resource teacher and baseball coach, is familiar with campaigning: He has run as a Republican for U.S. Senate and the House of Representatives. He has been a teacher for eight years and, with his wife, previously owned businesses repairing tractors and bulldozers.

He said he's running for union president because of the unreasonable workload imposed on his wife and other teachers in administrative positions, which involves running meetings and tracking services to special education students.

Gwin, 58, became a math teacher 20 years ago after a career in banking. He charges that some schools won't let him leave fliers in teachers' mailboxes but permit his opponents to do so.

"Someone needs to make this union inclusive of all the teachers and not just a few teachers," he said. He envisions Friday night jazz concerts in the union parking lot where teachers can socialize.

sara.neufeld@baltsun.com

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