Relations between teachers union, MCPS come full circle over three decades
Today’s strains mirror tensions of 1990s, which was followed by era of collaboration
From contentious contract talks to pointed disagreements on coping with COVID-19, there’s ample evidence of “growing tension” between the local teachers union and Montgomery County Public Schools, as union President Chris Lloyd described it.
But if the current strain is a marked departure from the norms of recent years, it underscores that labor-management relations have come full circle the past three decades. A confrontational period throughout much of the 1990s gave way to an era of collaboration that lasted well into the new millennium.
The ebb and flow of the relationship between the Montgomery County Education Association and MCPS, the nation’s 14th largest school system, can largely be attributed to an inevitable turnover in key players on both sides over a protracted period — and a changing political environment, locally and nationally.
The early 1990s was a time of tension, as financial fallout from the Gulf War recession prompted the County Council to refuse to fund a new contract agreed upon by the union and the county’s Board of Education. The council’s move was all but unprecedented going back more than two decades, since a 1968 strike against MCPS led to a state law granting collective bargaining rights to teachers.
In retaliation, MCEA adopted so-called “work-to-the-rule” tactics, in which teachers on a school-by-school basis adopted limits on their after-hours work activities.
While most of these protests produced limited backlash, teachers at John F. Kennedy High School in Silver Spring — then a pocket of union militancy — created a firestorm when they declined to use their own time to write recommendations to accompany college applications of graduating seniors.
The move triggered journalistic broadsides by The Washington Post’s editorial page. It also created intense local blowback that took MCEA years to overcome.
A major step toward rebuilding community support came in the late 1990s, when Mark Simon — a Bethesda-Chevy Chase High School teacher serving his second stint as MCEA president — pushed to establish a peer assistance and review (PAR) system.
“That was the game changer that rebuilt our credibility,” Tom Israel, MCEA’s executive director from 1989 to 2016, who now works for the parent National Education Association, said recently. “The public narrative at that time in a lot of places was that teachers unions ‘defended bad teachers.’ MCEA said no. Our commitment to a PAR program demonstrated that we were serious about improving the quality of teaching and learning.”
MCEA became one of the first NEA local units in the country to get behind such a program — aimed at counseling and evaluating new and underperforming teachers — when resistance to such a regimen was widespread within the national union.
Since the Montgomery County PAR program began in 2001, nearly 550 teachers on probationary or tenured status have been dismissed or not had their contracts renewed, according to figures provided by MCPS.
Another 475 who have been part of the program during the past two decades opted to resign before facing the judgment of a panel that the MCEA vice president has co-chaired.
In the 10 years prior to PAR, just two teachers had been terminated based on performance, according to Bonnie Cullison, Simon’s successor as MCEA president.
Cullison — now a member of the Maryland House of Delegates — and Simon sold the PAR program to often reluctant teachers and administrators with the aid of then-MCPS Superintendent Jerry Weast, who assumed his post in 1999.
Weast’s prior post was running a school system in North Carolina, a right-to-work state.
“We actually thought Jerry had been hired to make sure the unions stayed in our place,” Cullison recalled in an interview. ”But Jerry is extremely astute and understood that he had really big goals — and that if he was going to achieve these big goals, he needed his employees to be his assets, not his opponents. So we were able to build on that.”
It opened a period of close collaboration that empowered MCEA and the other school unions: SEIU Local 500, representing support staff, and the Montgomery County Association of Administrators and Principals.
In Cullison’s second year as president, MCEA was “able to convince [Weast] that it was important for us to be in on the development of his budget,” she said. “The way we convinced him was, ‘Hey, if this process is meaningful and you’re actually listening to us, then we’re not going to be able to shoot arrows at your budget because we were at the table doing it with you.’”
“You either hated him or loved him,” Cullison said of the often controversial Weast, “but his goal was always about kids and learning. Because I believed that, and still believe it, actually, I was willing to do whatever it took to help him move his agenda, but in a way that was inclusive.”
Their working relationship was close enough to prompt Weast to sound out Cullison about joining the MCPS administration when her two terms as MCEA president concluded in 2009. She turned him down, telling Weast: “You know, I have been your partner for six years. It would be really hard for me to be your employee now.”
Lloyd — who, nearly a decade after Weast’s departure, has pursued a more traditional labor stance toward MCPS management — acknowledged, during a lengthy interview, the upside of the previous collaborative strategy.
“In some ways, it benefited the union greatly,” Lloyd said of Cullison’s relationship with Weast. He recalled one year when Cullison brought back a particularly generous wage contract to MCEA’s representative assembly, on which Lloyd sat.
“I can remember all of our jaws just dropped, like, ‘Oh, my gosh. That’s incredible,’” Lloyd said. “Frankly, I think that agreement only came because of the relationship Bonnie had with Jerry at the time. … So that part is good.”
But Lloyd said that period also produced concerns within the nearly 14,000-member union that decision-making power had become overly concentrated.
“… There’s a view that we need to distribute leadership, that we can’t rely on one or two people to be making decisions,” he said. “The benefit of collaboration has to be that you’re getting some good things for the profession and teachers.
“But the drawback can be that things can be perceived as secretive and not transparent — that the power of a union is built upon the relationship between a president and a superintendent, that it’s not built upon labor itself. We really wanted to be able to empower members to have a voice and do that work.”
Lloyd added: “I think there were some concerns over the years from membership that we were too close to MCPS. The phrase that sometimes people used was that we were in bed with MCPS, that we’d lost our identity as a union.”
Even prior to Lloyd assuming the MCEA presidency in 2015, some of the collaborative labor-management structures erected by his predecessors and Weast had begun to weaken.
Weast formed what was known as the ADC Committee (an acronym for association leaders/deputies/chief operating officer). It consisted of the presidents and executive directors of the three school unions, along with MCPS’ deputy superintendent and chief operating officer.
Every other Friday morning, the panel convened for a couple of hours.
“Jerry’s view largely was ‘These are all the people in the system who are going to make decisions. So if you guys decide to do something, we’re all going to be good. But this is the room where it happens,’” Lloyd said.
But this type of collaboration began to weaken following Weast’s departure in 2011, and MCEA felt it was increasingly on the outside looking in.
Weast’s immediate successor, Joshua Starr, created a cabinet structure to guide decision-making, “which he had every right to do,” Lloyd said. “But in the creation of a cabinet that didn’t include any [union] people, we found that decisions that used to be made in the ADC — and even conversations that used to be had in ADC — were moved to this cabinet.”
Longtime MCPS Chief Operating Officer Larry Bowers — seen widely as committed to maximizing labor-management collaboration — remained in place under Starr. But following a year as interim superintendent after the school board declined to extend Starr’s contract, Bowers retired in 2016 and current Superintendent Jack Smith took over.
Smith has been viewed both inside and outside the MCEA as having limited experience working with large local labor unions. His prior stint as a schools superintendent was in Southern Maryland’s Calvert County, a jurisdiction with less than 10 percent of the population of Montgomery County.
“Jack approaches the work with a cabinet and an executive team,” Lloyd said. “And so, in many ways, we find out about things in a more traditional labor-management situation, where you’re informed and you go, ‘OK, that’s what we’re doing.’”
This dynamic played out during Smith’s first term as superintendent — the school board reappointed him to a second term this year — as he crafted a system for holding individual schools accountable for closing the much-discussed “achievement gap.” There was little MCEA involvement.
“We had principals’ and administrators’ meetings once a month when I was on the board, where the superintendent would present all this data and the explanations,” said Jill Ortman-Fouse, who left the Board of Education at the end of 2018. “And it was really helpful, really important to understand. But the teachers weren’t there and I don’t know how they got that info to them.
“I think it would have been helpful for the MCEA board to be able to see what was going on when this stuff was coming out … and been asked, ‘How do you think we should address this? Let’s come up with a plan together.’”
The upshot is that MCEA has increasingly resorted to collective action to place outside pressure on the school management on issues ranging from increased paperwork requirements for special education teachers to processing of health insurance premiums for MCEA members.
Seeking a new wage agreement to replace its expiring three-year contract with MCPS, MCEA went back to the traditional, more adversarial bargaining process, in which the two sides swap rival proposals. It supplanted the “interest-based bargaining” model used since Weast’s tenure, in which the parties identified issues and worked to find solutions to them.
The shift away from the more collaborative process comes amid growing militancy by teacher unions nationwide — as evidenced by teacher strikes last year in two of the nation’s largest school districts, Chicago and Los Angeles — as well as growing frustrations closer to home.
MCEA members “continue to face challenges around lack of adequate planning time [and] around lack of autonomy and professional judgment — and being able to exercise that in a classroom and a school,” Lloyd said.
There is speculation that the “collaboration vs. collective action” debate might play out further next year, when the union selects a successor to Lloyd, amid what is said to be divisions in the MCEA board on this issue.
Cullison, more than a decade removed from running the MCEA, remains committed to the collaborative approach.
“It took a long time for [collaboration] to become embedded in the culture,” she said. “As I look at the relationship between MCEA and MCPS from the outside now, I worry that some of that culture has shifted back to more opposition.”
Meanwhile, several sources outside the MCEA suggested that the 2018 U.S. Supreme Court decision in Janus v. American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees Council 31 might be playing a role in the union’s current stance. That decision barred public employee unions from collecting “agency fees” for collective bargaining from workers who decline to join the union.
Prior to that decision, MCPS submitted an amicus curiae brief on behalf of labor’s position. The brief expressed concerns by other public sector employers that an adverse ruling could force unions to take a more vocal stance against management to attract new members and make up for lost revenue.
MCEA estimates a 6 to 8 percent revenue reduction due to a loss of agency fees and members declining to renew in the wake of Janus.
Lloyd contends that the decision’s effect has been overstated. But he acknowledged it could have a future impact on union decision-making.
“Could we have done the [peer assistance and review] system now?’ Lloyd wondered, referring to the PAR program initiated by his predecessors two decades ago. “And I’m not sure about that.”
“When we did it, it was not something that membership roundly liked,” he said. “I think people came to understand it was union work, [but] if Janus was in effect at that time, would Mark [Simon] have been able to do it? And if he did, would people have said, ‘That’s it. I’m out. I’m dropping my membership’? And you therefore would have hurt the union.”
Lloyd added: “If you … don’t have to worry about people dropping memberships, then you may be allowed to take more risks. … I do think that plays into our board’s mind in how we proceed.”