Montgomery teachers union wields power

Like any union boss, Chris Lloyd pushes for pay raises and better working conditions for the nearly 12,000 Montgomery County teachers he represents. But unlike most, he also helps decide whether low performers should be fired.

When the answer is yes, it falls to Lloyd to break the news to his struggling colleague. The vice president of the county teachers union closes the office door, pulls up a chair and tries to be straightforward as he delivers the verdict from a committee of teachers and principals: We are recommending termination.

“Those are the hardest days,” he said. “But I would rather they hear the news in our house than from somewhere else.”

With a direct role in high-stakes personnel decisions, budget setting and teacher training, the Montgomery County Education Association is on the leading edge of a wave of teacher unionism that emphasizes collaboration over conflict and makes school reform a top priority.

The pivot away from confrontation comes as teachers are pushing to maintain influence within an increasingly crowded field of education reformers.

“Unions are as cognizant as anyone that if the larger public-education landscape doesn’t improve, their days will be numbered,” said Michael Casserly, executive director of the Council of the Great City Schools.

The Montgomery union’s partnership with a school system that has narrowed achievement gaps offers a counterpoint to those who argue that confronting unions is essential to fixing public education. Instead, the relationship has “helped propel” the district “to the top echelons of school systems in the nation,” said Montgomery County Council member Valerie Ervin (D-Silver Spring), a former school board member.

Critics say teachers unions everywhere promote the financial interests of adults over the interests of children. In Montgomery, some argue that union influence has led the school board to cut deals with teachers that taxpayers can’t sustain.

Montgomery teachers are among the best paid in the region. Despite some fierce conflicts with the County Council over budgets, the school board also has protected generous health benefits for teachers. School and union leaders are now fighting in Annapolis to safeguard a steady flow of local education funding.

Last year, Montgomery schools were featured at a conference in Denver, where the federal government convened delegations of union, management and school board members from across the country to team up on reform. Local unions in cities including Tampa, New Haven, Conn., and Portland, Maine, also have gained recognition for negotiating new ways to evaluate or pay teachers.

Still, it’s not easy turning historic adversaries into tight-knit teams. Joshua P. Starr, who became Montgomery’s superintendent in July, said he was amazed by the high level of trust between labor leaders and administrators.

He described a more arm’s-length relationship with unions in his previous job as head of the Stamford, Conn., school system. Leadership meetings happened privately, he said. “Then you would think, ‘How are you going to work this through the union?’ ”

In the District, talks dragged on for more than two years before the Washington Teachers’ Union reached a deal with then-Schools Chancellor Michelle A. Rhee in 2010 on a contract that introduced merit pay and gave administrators more firing power. And in Virginia, where teachers unions do not have collective-bargaining rights, labor leaders often rely on political pressure to get their voices heard.

“Collaboration is one of the buzzwords of the day,” said Michael Hairston, president of the 6,000-member Fairfax Education Association. “But if it’s a one-sided conversation, then you have to use other means.”

Some doubt that unions can embrace reform, particularly efforts that make it easier to fire teachers. “I think it’s important not to expect a cat to bark,” said Terry Moe, a Stanford political scientist who is a well-known critic of teacher unionism. “You have to remember that unions are in the business of protecting jobs.”

But the Montgomery union has sought to counter that criticism head-on. It helped create a “Peer Assistance and Review” system of evaluating and supporting teachers more than a decade ago. Struggling teachers are paired with mentors and given help, and those who fail to show progress after a year can be fired. Their cases are overseen by a committee of teachers and administrators.

Since 2001, the process has led to the dismissal of 245 teachers and the resignation of 300. In the decade before, a handful were terminated for poor performance. Teacher firings across the country are rare. “As a union, we have to be concerned about protecting our profession, not protecting everything that breathes,” Lloyd said. The union is also proud that the program has helped thousands of teachers improve and stay in the classroom.

Montgomery refused to join Maryland’s successful bid in 2010 for a federal Race to the Top school-reform grant because union and school leaders found it out of sync with the evaluation system they had created.

They have sharply criticized some reform proposals that are gaining prominence across the country: They oppose using test scores as a decisive factor to rate teachers, and they oppose merit pay, saying it promotes competition over collaboration.

Union leaders say their partnership with administrators goes back to a 1997 shift in collective-bargaining strategy. Traditionally, the two sides came to the table with long lists of competing demands, but in “interest-based” bargaining, they focus on principles they agree on.

Since then, negotiations have emphasized student achievement and created paths for teacher involvement in decision-making at all levels. Contracts now include union-elected building representatives and teacher panels that respond to policy changes countywide. Union leaders also sit in on meetings with the superintendent.

Instead of waiting for the superintendent to release a spending plan each winter, employee unions are invited to help develop it. Greater involvement has led to increased ownership, school officials say. Instead of fighting, they “go out and help us sell it,” said Larry Bowers, chief operating officer for Montgomery schools.

The close relationship has helped teachers’ bottom line, but it has also become a source of conflict in tough times, with other county employees and council members arguing that school personnel have been unfairly sheltered from cuts.

The pay scale for Montgomery teachers starts at $46,410 a year and goes up to $103,634 (locally, only teachers in the District are paid more). They pay from 5 to 10 percent of their health-insurance premiums, the lowest share of any local school system and less than half of what other county employees pay.

School employees voluntarily gave up scheduled raises for the past three years, helping the county bridge budget shortfalls. But they kept their health benefits even as county employees increased their contribution last year. And they were spared a furlough that was imposed on other county employees two years ago. Last month, the school board approved a proposal that includes an employee salary increase.

“The fiscal differences between county and school employees are becoming untenable,” said County Council member Phil Andrews (D-Gaithersburg-Rockville). He attributed the imbalance in part to the “outsized” political influence of the teachers union, which plays a major role in electing school board members and other county officials. Forty-four out of 47 recommended candidates on the union’s “Apple Ballot” were elected in 2010.

Former council member Duchy Trachtenberg (D) said she lost her reelection bid that year because the teachers and other public-employee unions campaigned against her. On the council, Trachtenberg repeatedly questioned labor deals’ affordability.

“There is a fear factor . . . for those who don’t walk in lock step with the school union,” she said.

Chris Lloyd appears less than intimidating as a union leader. He wears Converse sneakers with business suits and offers to make cookies for meetings. His automatic e-mail signature reads: “Loving Husband.”

He left his full-time teaching job at John T. Baker Middle School in Damascus when he became union vice president in 2009, but he still spends every morning giggling with eighth-graders in a TV production class at the school as they create the morning newscast.

Lloyd is unapologetic about the union’s political muscle.

Montgomery taxpayers are getting a good return on their investment in teachers, he said, adding that the union wants to influence education policy “big time” as sweeping changes are transforming the profession — with or without teacher input.

“We are the gorilla in the room,” he said. “We’ve done great things in closing the achievement gap, and it did not happen in an office somewhere. It happened at a school.”

Michael Alison Chandler writes about schools and families in Northern Virginia.
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