Contract negotiations between Montgomery County Public Schools and its teachers union have ground to a halt with the union’s filing Tuesday of an unfair labor practice complaint for “unlawful delay tactics” that it says resulted from an ongoing disagreement over ground rules.

The Montgomery County Education Association, which represents 14,000 teachers, says it filed the complaint with the Maryland Public School Labor Relations Board over the district’s refusal to allow its members to observe all stages of the negotiating process for its next three-year contract. The union says MCPS is using its demand for open negotiations, which did occur during contract negotiations in 2019, to delay this year’s process, violating state labor laws. The union’s current contract expires in June.

MCPS, which has offered five open sessions, says it has been negotiating “back and forth” with the union over the rules since June and “stands ready and willing” to continue work on the ground rules, but the filing of the complaint and the expected mediation process that will result could potentially delay negotiations by “several months,” according to Chief Operating Officer Brian Hull.

More than 150 members of the union rallied outside MCPS headquarters in Rockville on Tuesday evening before leaders met with the school board and presented teachers’ key bargaining proposals. They’re focused on incentives for recruitment and retention, particularly for high-needs schools; pay increases and a “more fair” salary scale; and the boosting of stipends for supervising extracurricular activities.

Tuesday’s meeting had been scheduled as the annual session between the union and the school board and MCPS leaders to discuss “items of mutual interest,” according to the board’s meeting agenda. Those items included: improving math and literacy rates, building a safe and inclusive school climate, supporting two-way communication between schools and families, and improving recruitment, retention and distribution of highly qualified and diverse staff.

Union President Jennifer Martin said the union decided to use the meeting to present its proposals “in light of continuing delays in the commencement of negotiations and the work being done now to develop MCPS’s budget request.”

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“We are not afraid to put our proposals forward in public view, and we hope that tonight’s meeting will convince you that having negotiation open to observation by our members will be to the mutual benefit of both the union and the school system,” Martin said as dozens of union members looked on. “It is no secret that educator morale is at an all-time low here as it is across the nation, leading to a growing crisis in staffing.”

The contract negotiations are an “opportune time” to work together to restore respect for teachers and to invest in staff and students, she said.

Earlier Tuesday, MCPS released a statement noting that the union planned to file the unfair labor practice complaint. The district said it “continues to be committed to beginning and successfully completing negotiations” for collective bargaining agreements with its three unions. Ground rules have been established and negotiations are underway with both the Service Employees International-Local 500 and the Montgomery County Association of Administrators and Principals, the statement said.

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“At the end of the day, it is a responsibility and commitment of MCPS to serve our employees, so we wonder if this current state is serving [the union’s] interests and, most importantly, the children and families in our district,” the statement said.  

During the meeting, other union leaders and members also spoke, recounting the difficulty of retaining qualified staff, especially at schools with higher poverty levels, because of the emotional and workload burnout. Some spoke of untenable work conditions while others talked of rushing off to work part-time jobs at the end of the school day in order to make ends meet.

Noting the ongoing shortage of substitute teachers, the union leaders also called for increased pay for those teachers who are required to fill in or take over other classes when substitutes aren’t available, often leading to a loss of planning time.

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At the end of the presentation, school board President Brenda Wolff thanked the union for meeting with the board. No other board members or MCPS leaders responded.

After the meeting, Wolff said the board’s “goal is to solidify this partnership” with the union and “move forward.”

The board understands that educators and the district have faced “unusual challenges” over the past few years, she said. “We have tried to make adjustments to accommodate some of the concerns, but you can’t adjust for everything that has been raised,” Wolff said.

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Julie Rasicot

Julie Rasicot can be reached at julie.rasicot@bethesdamagazine.com