MCPS, teachers union nearing ‘impasse’ in contract negotiations

MCPS, teachers union nearing ‘impasse’ in contract negotiations

Many key issues unresolved; less than two weeks left in contract

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With less than two weeks before the county teachers union’s contract expires, negotiations on a new agreement continue, causing some to worry the union and MCPS will reach a formal impasse for the first time in years.

Since October, school district officials and Montgomery County Education Association members have met routinely to negotiate a new contract before the current three-year contract expires on June 30. It covers more than 14,000 local educators.

From the start, the process has frequently been tense and, as of Friday, an agreement hadn’t been reached. Montgomery County Del. Gabriel Acevero was recruited as an unpaid, informal mediator to help resolve conflicts.

“Our hope is that we can use the informal mediation process and that Gabe can be a neutral party to navigate both sides and reach a tentative agreement,” MCEA President Chris Lloyd said in an interview this week. “The Board of Education has conveyed it is their interest that the contract not expire. Nobody wants to not have a contract by the end, but we’ll see if we can get there.”

Beyond saying that the new contract is expected to span two years instead of the traditional three, Lloyd declined to comment further, citing an agreement between the union and MCPS that neither side will discuss negotiations with the media.

In an interview on Friday night, MCPS Deputy Superintendent Monifa McKnight said the school district is “committed to the process and will continue to work with MCEA.”

Bargaining sessions are not open to the press, but MCEA has run a blog for its members since negotiations began, accessible to anyone with the link. In its most recent post, the union wrote, “while we are hopeful that the informal mediation process will help us make significantly more progress … we are also prepared to request from the Maryland’s Public School Labor Relations Board a determination of impasse in negotiations should the informal mediation process not result in a tentative agreement.”

Officials said bargaining is expected to continue through the weekend.

If either side declares an impasse and asks the Labor Relations Board to intervene, it would give state officials the authority to examine the negotiation process, proposals and counterproposals, and issue a binding decision about the issues still in dispute.

Representatives of the Labor Relations Board could not be reached for comment on Friday. Its website only lists opinions dating to 2012.

In recent weeks, the MCEA blog has lamented “slow progress” in negotiations and wrote that there is still “substantial work to do on our core issues,” like salaries, reducing testing, increased transparency and oversight of staffing ratios and providing teachers adequate planning time.

McKnight disagreed that MCPS has been slow to respond to MCEA proposals, as the blog alleges.

McKnight highlighted that MCPS has reached contract agreements with the other two unions, which represent administrators and service workers.

She said a new bargaining approach employed by MCEA forces the two sides to work from an “adversarial perspective.”

Previously, the union used “interest-based bargaining,” in which the parties work together to find a “win-win” agreement. This year, MCEA is using “a more traditional approach to bargaining where we will exchange proposals with MCPS,” according to an October statement from the union.

“We have two associations who have worked together to bargain and we’ve made much more progress in that space,” McKnight said. “It’s not about a response. When there is a decision to do negotiations working from an adversarial perspective, it’s going to take things longer to progress.”

She added that MCPS has “put every effort in place to continue to be collaborative in an effort to reach an agreement” without having to go to impasse.

“If we do not get there by the 30th — of course that’s not what we want, but we will do what we have to do at that point,” McKnight said.

Fall classes

Once the next MCEA contract is finalized, union and MCPS officials will begin a new round of bargaining “on everything related to” fall classes, “because we definitely will not be bringing 166,000 kids back to classes in August for the first day of school,” Lloyd said.

So there will need to be “impact bargaining” in which MCPS and MCEA reach agreements about everything ranging from what an average work day looks like for teachers to safety precautions needed for both staff and students. Mask requirements, supplies of hand sanitizer and possible installation of plexiglass in some situations might be part of discussions, Lloyd said.

Lloyd said many older teachers and those who are immunocompromised have told him they might not be comfortable returning to school buildings in the fall. But, Lloyd said, Superintendent Jack Smith has been clear with union leaders that teachers and students will have the flexibility to decide if they need to work remotely.

MCPS spokesman Derek Turner said the school district anticipates that many teachers and students won’t be able to return to school buildings when they reopen, or will not feel safe.

“We do understand that, and we want to make sure we’re not putting anyone in danger,” Turner said.

MCPS has not yet released a plan for fall teaching, but Turner said the school board is expected to receive a briefing in July.

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

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