The Baltimore Teachers Union has waged an aggressive campaign to win support for a landmark contract to be voted on Wednesday, sometimes addressing concerns of specific interest groups in an effort to bridge the more than 400-vote gap that led to an earlier defeat of the agreement.
But one of those meetings has raised questions among some who attended. Earlier this month, union officials held an information session with about 300 Filipino teachers. During that meeting, teachers also asked questions that led to discussions about the school system's efforts to assist international teachers with immigration applications and expedite visas to secure U.S. citizenship.
Union officials said the session was no different than others it has held with teachers in 198 schools across the city.
"There were some meetings where we didn't even talk about the contract; we said, 'Let's talk about what you need,'" said Aileen Mercado, a member of the union's executive board who is Filipino.
Rogie Legaspi, president of the Filipino Educators in Maryland, acknowledged that a strongly worded invitation he sent may have contributed to a misunderstanding about the intent of the meeting.
In the e-mail invitation obtained by The Baltimore Sun, Legaspi urged Filipino teachers to attend a Nov. 2 luncheon at a function hall in Baltimore, and asked for an explanation if they weren't able to attend. The invitation pointed out discussions with union leaders about immigration issues, and encouraged Filipino teachers to prove they have a stake in the district's future by turning out in large numbers for the information session and then for the vote.
Legaspi and union officials said in interviews that the union did not promise to help teachers with visas in exchange for votes.
Several teachers who attended, and asked not to be identified because of the sensitive nature of the discussions, said they were disturbed that immigration issues and the contract were linked in the e-mail.
The city's Filipino teachers have been a vulnerable population in Baltimore. A Baltimore Sun investigation earlier this year revealed that a principal was accused of recruiting a group of Filipinos to buy and sell Mary Kay products for her. And in September, dozens of Filipino teachers attended a city school board meeting to protest their dismissals from the school system, alleging discrimination by principals. Those who lose their jobs also risk having their immigration status revoked.
But Marietta English, president of the teachers union, said the Nov. 2 meeting "was not about visas and [their connection to] the contract. It was the same presentation we made to the building reps and other teachers. We used the exact same printouts, same overheads, same everything."
The contract, negotiated over several months this year, would overhaul how teachers are paid and evaluated and has been lauded for its reform provisions. But it was rejected after an Oct. 14 vote that stunned the union and school administrators, who vowed to better explain the agreement to teachers.
Legaspi said the meeting, held on Election Day when schools were closed, was spurred by a conversation he had with English about how to better inform Filipino teachers about the benefits of the pact.
Under the new contract, teachers would no longer be paid based on "step increases," which are automatic raises based on tenure or the number of degrees acquired. Instead they would climb a four-tier career ladder, which would see an elite corps of teachers earning six-figure salaries. The most substantial revisions to the new tentative agreement address specifically how teachers would climb the career ladder.
In addition, in the last two years of the contract, teachers' pay would be based on an evaluation system not yet drafted by the state's Department of Education that would tie student performance to teacher evaluations.
"Basically, I was telling [English] that there are a lot of concerns going around within the Filipino and international cohort because they don't feel that the contract speaks to them," Legaspi said. "They feel that there's nothing that would help them out in a lot of the conditions that they find themselves in."
Legaspi said that he did specifically ask how his Filipino colleagues stood to gain from the contract, to which English responded that a memorandum of understanding is in the works that specifically addresses international teachers and would later be added to the contract.
"That's democracy, that's lobbying," Legaspi said. "Some people said we might be ploys for the BTU, and the fact is, I don't think we're being used. If we were, I would be the first one to complain about it."
English acknowledged that Legaspi's e-mail invitation could be interpreted differently by different readers. For example, her staff took issue with Legaspi's description of the Filipino teachers as "a voting block to reckon with," which they thought could be seen as hostile toward English.
She said that during the question-and-answer part of the presentation, teachers expressed concerns about their immigration filings.
"What I believe is that our tentative agreement is good for everybody," English said. "I'm not trying to bribe anybody, I'm just trying to make that clear. Teachers have now said, 'Now I can vote for this because I understand, I didn't even vote the last time.' That is my goal."
English said that she also had been invited to meetings in private homes with international teachers, where they expressed their immigration concerns. "As the organization that represents them, I felt it was our obligation to expedite what needs to happen as far as their visas were concerned," she said of those meetings.
In the e-mail invitation, Legaspi told Filipino teachers that during an Oct. 29 meeting with English and school system officials, they discussed "the commitment of the district to its international cohort in the light of the recent denials and audits of some of our colleagues' [visa] applications" and added that "the district is committed" to helping "in terms of filing our immigration papers."
Legaspi said some Filipino teachers did raise concerns about the tone of the e-mail and the meeting, because "they were paranoid with some of the promises that may or may have not been mentioned to them personally."
But Legaspi said union officials never stated that if Filipino teachers voted for the contract, they would provide them assistance with their visas.
"That would be completely unfair to say, and we're smarter than that," Legaspi said.
One Filipino teacher of six years, who asked not to be identified for fear of retribution, said that because of the meeting, she has decided to vote for the contract.
"As a teacher, it is my responsibility to be at the meeting where my future is at stake," she said. "It was clear, it was concise, and we were able to plan ahead. As a teacher, you want to know what kind of benefits you're going to get, what security you have."
Other non-Filipino teachers and union officials say the union has made an effort to tailor its informational campaign to the district's educators in the past few weeks.
While teachers are mixed on how effective it has been, many say that the union is trying to ensure that every concern about the contract is addressed, even if the answers aren't persuasive enough to change members' minds.
The union has brought in about 15 members from its parent organization, the American Federation of Teachers, to help explain the contract. Other efforts include eight town hall meetings and a phone conference where hundreds of teachers called in to ask questions of English. Literature has been distributed to teachers at their homes and schools. The union will also change the way that teachers vote Wednesday by using electronic polling at five locations after teachers complained of waiting for hours to place paper ballots in a taped-up box in the vote last month.
"The biggest difference is the time that has been given that they could get out and talk to every member," said Thomas Burke, a teacher of eight years who opposes the contract. "The tactics are kind of tacky. They're trying to lure us with the money, and they can't be specific on the issues, but they're a little more strategic, where they knew they needed to get out to us and hear us."
Other teachers said the vote will reflect how much information they received in the past few weeks.
"If you didn't know this time about the contract, it's really your fault," said Steve Hoffman, a teacher for five years and proponent of the contract. "I feel like last time, there was a legitimate gripe. Is the campaign aggressive? Maybe. But it's what people asked for."