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With a new school year underway, Montgomery County Public Schools officials and leaders of the county teachers union are acknowledging that they need to improve their relationship and avoid conflicts that could draw attention away from a mutual goal of providing quality instruction to students.

Tensions between the Montgomery County Education Association, which represents the district’s 14,000 teachers, and MCPS leadership have increased in recent years due to a number of issues and as the union repeatedly called out the district for its handling of the COVID-19 pandemic. That includes last week when union leaders threw their support behind challengers in the upcoming school board elections, saying that “the issues currently plaguing our school system are a collective failure of each incumbent during their time in office.”

Some local education advocates were hopeful for a “fresh start” with a change in union leadership and the appointment earlier this year of Superintendent Monifa McKnight, who had been serving as interim school chief and took over the permanent role July 1.

While a reset doesn’t appear to have started out in a strong fashion, both MCPS and MCEA leaders say they’re hopeful that will change in the coming months as the district continues to recover from dealing with the COVID-19 pandemic and new contract negotiations with unions representing teachers, support professionals and administrators get underway. An attempt to reach school board President Brenda Wolff for comment was unsuccessful.

“I think we’re feeling a lot more secure about COVID itself but there certainly was a time where we felt there was an inadequate response from the Board of Education and school leadership when we most needed it,” MCEA President Jennifer Martin said in an interview last week. “It was extremely troubling and it led to a worsening of the relationship, from our perspective as a union, in dealing with the superintendent and Board of Education at that time. But I think as we’re coming through the worst of the effects of COVID, we are guardedly hopeful that things are going to be improving as we go forward this year.”

McKnight declined an interview request to discuss relations with the teachers union, referring questions to Deputy Superintendent Patrick Murphy. But in an op-ed published Sept. 10 in Bethesda Beat, McKnight called upon the district community to work together to solve issues.

“Working together is the key. We have spent too much of the past two years working against each other – letting our common challenges divide us rather than unite us. This school year, I invite the MCPS community to renew its commitment to working together. We may not agree on everything, but we all believe that our schools provide the best opportunity for our students and our future,” McKnight wrote.

MCPS Superintendent Monifa McKnight Credit: File photo

In early 2020, before the pandemic took hold across the country, tensions between MCPS and MCEA came to a head when then-Superintendent Jack Smith announced sweeping changes to his school district leadership team without first divulging the plan to the union.

That conflict culminated after months of brewing tension with the union, which was frustrated that major decisions were made behind closed doors while teachers’ ideas were sidelined, according to Chris Lloyd, the union president at the time.

Now, more than two years later, Martin has expressed similar frustrations with the new administration.

In the interview, Martin said the union often feels “pushed into a reactive posture” because it is not involved early enough in the development of new initiatives or programs.

“And that leads to these struggles that don’t lead to outcomes in the time that would be ideal, and that don’t necessarily end up with the intended objective,” Martin said.

Last month, for example, MCPS and the union became embroiled in a public back-and-forth over a proposal intended to recruit special education teachers.

On the Friday before teachers reported for a week of preservice before the start of the current school year, MCPS sent an email to all teachers asking those who are dual-certified in special education but assigned to a general education classroom to consider volunteering for a transfer to special education. Those who did so and were chosen for the switch would receive $5,000, the school district said.

The district in that message also said the teachers union had agreed to the deal, a claim the union refuted later that day.

The disagreement led to several more days of negotiations before an agreement was finalized, and, ultimately, just one teacher was transferred to an education program, an outcome that MCPS leaders attributed, in part, to the dispute.

MCEA leaders said more advance notice could have been beneficial in recruiting more teachers.

Murphy said he believes MCEA and MCPS have a strong relationship and that some of the conflicts are “part of the negotiating process.” Like McKnight, Murphy assumed his new role, which oversees labor relations, in July. He came to MCPS after serving for about three years as superintendent of Berkeley County schools in Martinsburg, West Virginia.

“I think each group has a responsibility and a role to advocate for their interests, and also our collective interests,” Murphy said. “So advocating for children and their future, I think that’s a shared interest we have, but as I said, negotiating is part of that relationship building, part of that giving and taking and it’s also kind of an understanding.”

He said the collaboration is successful, evidenced by how “the different associations really work together” and by students’ academic success.

“The goals of everyone who’s coming to the table is really the key starting point and I think we share those common interests, which is the future of our students,” Murphy said. “We have had some differences or some changes here in the last two and a half to three years, and I think they influenced people’s thinking. People may be a little bit more tired and their needs have also changed.” 

Over the past year, tensions between the two sides seemed to be escalating. In January, MCEA members passed a vote of “no confidence” in the district’s handling of the pandemic, a relatively uncommon move.

Murphy said he didn’t want to place all of the blame on the effects of the pandemic, but acknowledged dealing with COVID-19 did bring new issues and challenges — such as how to handle air ventilation upgrades and mask requirements or how to manage virtual classes — that neither side had experience addressing.

Many educators are feeling burnt out and, at times, unappreciated, raising stress levels, Martin said.

Still, both sides said they’re hopeful that as the effects of the pandemic ease, there will be more opportunities to work closely together, particularly as they begin negotiating a new contract for teachers.

Murphy said he’s optimistic the relationship between the union and the school district will improve over time as McKnight and other new administrators settle into their new roles. It takes time, he said, to change direction in a school district the size of MCPS, which serves more than 160,000 students.

“I think we’re going to be able to build on that, and I have a positive outlook on it,” Murphy said. “… I look forward to working with the associations — there will be some hills and valleys, but that’s OK. We’re going to come out in a good place. We always do.”