2021 | Schools

UPDATED: MCPS superintendent ‘perplexed’ by union’s ‘no confidence’ vote on reopening

Smith does not intend to change plan following MCEA announcement

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MCPS Superintendent Jack Smith speaks during a press conference in November 2019.

File photo

This story was updated at 10:02 a.m. Feb. 18, 2021, to include information from an MCEA spokesperson.

Montgomery County Public Schools officials, including Superintendent Jack Smith, said they were “surprised,” “disappointed” and “perplexed” by the teachers union’s vote of no confidence in the district’s reopening plan.

In an interview on Wednesday, Smith said he was surprised by the “public nature” of the Montgomery County Education Association’s vote, announced in a press release the night before. Particularly, he said, because the union and district officials had just finalized an impact bargaining agreement the same day.

Impact bargaining relates to working conditions for teachers when buildings reopen amid the COVID-19 pandemic.

“Almost simultaneously, we got news of this vote, so I was deeply perplexed and had real consternation about how those two messages fit together from the same association,” Smith said, adding that he does not plan on recommending any changes to the current reopening plan. “… I definitely think that we’re on the right path and unless the data … changes dramatically, we’re going to continue to go forward.”

In a separate interview, MCEA Vice President Jennifer Martin said, though, that because the district can require educators to return to buildings, the union felt it was imperative to get “some protections in writing” despite not agreeing with the plan.

MCEA is still negotiating some issues jointly with other employee unions, including hazard pay and instructional models, Martin said.

“Not everything has been resolved,” Martin said. “The idea (in signing the bargaining agreement) was to get this much accomplished, but we’re not done. There are too many unanswered questions right now to give us confidence that this is a workable plan that prioritizes the safety of our educators and the students that we serve.”

The administrators’ union on Wednesday also sent a letter to the school board voicing frustration with bargaining and communication about reopening plans.

Opportunities to provide feedback and ask questions have been “uncoordinated and limited” and the MCPS administration has not been responsive, the union wrote.

The administrators said they learn of many MCPS changes when the public does during school board meetings, forcing them to rebuild their school’s plan, the letter said.

Union leaders wrote that they are concerned that MCPS cannot “effectively answer important questions regarding staffing” and operations.

“Honesty, transparency, authentic collaboration, and respect is what our members deserve,” the letter said. “We are one MCPS team; it is time that we act like it.”

The teachers union asked school board members to attend a meeting on Thursday evening to review educators’ concerns. An MCEA spokeswoman wrote in an email on Thursday morning that the school board declined the invitation.

The union’s demands include that MCPS implement a contact tracing and COVID-19 testing program, adhere to guidelines established by the Centers for Disease and Control and Prevention for reopening, and “provide all employees the opportunity to be fully vaccinated before a return to in-person instruction.”

If the district is not responsive to those demands, Martin said MCEA is “exploring” what action it would take next.

“We certainly would not leave it at that,” Martin said of the vote of no confidence. “This is too important. We’re talking about life and death for our members, so we would have to move forward with other actions.”

She did not elaborate.

The vote of no confidence is an official showing by the union, which represents about 14,000 educators, that it does not support the reopening plan. MCEA said the vote of no confidence was passed with 96% of representatives voting in favor.

The first group of about 700 students — less than 1% of the student body — is scheduled to return to schools on March 1 after a year of virtual classes. Other students will begin to phase back into buildings March 15.

Students were last in schools for regular in-person classes on March 13, 2020.

Smith argued that the impact bargaining agreement is “comprehensive and thorough” and addresses many of the issues raised in the vote of no confidence resolution.

While teachers being vaccinated is not a prerequisite to reopening buildings, the bargaining agreement provides paid leave for them to receive the vaccine when it is available. It also says teachers’ preference about teaching in-person or virtually will be considered when making in-school assignments.

And, Smith said, he and the school board have long advocated for teachers to be prioritized for vaccinations.

Early in the state’s vaccination efforts, MCPS pushed for educators to be included among the first phases. Last week, the school board sent a letter to Gov. Larry Hogan urging him to “expedite the dissemination” of vaccines to Montgomery County so educators can be vaccinated sooner.

“We don’t have the authority and aren’t in the position to get vaccines,” Smith said Wednesday. “When you talk about vaccinations, that goes way beyond the control of the school system. Way, way beyond.”

Of the roughly 4,500 MCPS staff members who have received vaccines, about 52% went to support staff, 42% to teachers and 6% to administrators, Smith said, adding that he has not been vaccinated.

He said recent data showing a decline in the spread of COVID-19 make him confident that reopening is safer than it might have been earlier in the winter. A recent announcement from the state unveiling a free COVID-19 testing program for school districts that reopen is also helpful, Smith said.

The county’s case rate per 100,000 people dropped to 12.8 as of Wednesday afternoon, according to the county health department, its lowest level since Oct. 29, and within the range MCPS had previously set to reopen buildings. The test positivity rate was 4.1%.

Smith also pointed to families’ desire to return to schools. About 40% of MCPS families plan to return to buildings when they reopen, according to the results of a survey sent to each student’s parents and guardians in December.

“It’s about how do we meet the needs of all of the people in the community and especially all of the students and children,” Smith said.

In a statement on Wednesday, the school board wrote that it was “deeply disappointed” in the vote of no confidence, after the administration spent “hundreds” of hours negotiating with MCEA.

“The Board believes in collaboration with all stakeholders, including our teachers’ union,” the statement said. “However, collaboration does not supplant the singular responsibility and authority of the Board to make decisions about MCPS. The pandemic has strained us individually and as a community. There is no perfect plan and no decision without consequences.”

Caitlynn Peetz can be reached at caitlynn.peetz@bethesdamagazine.com