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In Montgomery County, the teachers union and its toxic influence

Friday, February 5, 2010; A18

MOST CANDIDATES for local office in Montgomery County covet the endorsement of the county teachers union more than any other, and all of them know the drill: Appear at union events, fill out the union questionnaire, submit to the union interview. The union, representing 11,000 teachers, helpfully provides a road map to candidates seeking its blessing, including 11 criteria spelled out in painstaking detail online. Just one thing is missing from this handy guide: Candidates who receive the union's stamp of approval are also then expected to pay.

As far as we know, this arrangement is unique; in elections elsewhere, unions and other special interests contribute to candidates, not vice versa. But such is the overweening power of the teachers union in Montgomery that the usual rules are turned upside down. And it's no coincidence that the union's toxic influence in local elections is matched by its success in squeezing unaffordable concessions from the county in contract negotiations -- at taxpayers' expense.

In the latest elections for the Montgomery County Council, in 2006, most candidates on the union-approved (and trademarked) "Apple Ballot" coughed up the maximum contribution allowed by state law, $6,000, to a PAC run by the Montgomery County Education Association, as the teachers union is known. Union-backed candidates for the Board of Education also paid handsomely. Supposedly, these funds covered the cost of the union's mailings to constituents and other activities on behalf of its anointed candidates -- although there is no real accounting on a campaign-by-campaign basis. In theory, these contributions are voluntary. In fact, several sources told us that the MCEA's chief political strategist, Jon Gerson, made it clear that he expected candidates, once endorsed, to pay what they "owed" for the union's campaign on their behalf. One candidate, asked to explain the decision to pay, answered concisely: "Fear."

This distorts and perverts the political process. A case in point is Nancy Floreen, the current County Council president, who suggested, during a budget crunch in 2003, that the union make some concessions on compensation. That probably cost her the MCEA endorsement in the 2006 primaries, in which she barely managed to retain her council seat. This year, facing reelection and even more dire budgetary circumstances, Ms. Floreen has been quiet as a mouse on the subject of union concessions, even though negotiations on a new contract for teachers are underway.

And no wonder. In addition to its multiple and targeted mailings in the last elections, the MCEA planted yard signs, bought advertising on the radio and at Metro stations and deployed teachers to every key county polling station, where they handed voters sample "Apple Ballots" of endorsed candidates bearing the words "Teacher Recommended." Of the 47 "Apple Ballot" candidates in 2006, 42 won their races for county and state legislative offices.

Some MCEA-backed candidates, and the union, portray this as a win-win arrangement whereby teachers and the candidates who support them help one another out. As Mr. Gerson put it to us: "Everybody would like to do this, and others have said they'd like to try, but what you have to have is a product that someone says they'd like to invest in."

Teachers are a bedrock of any community, and they deserve good salaries and benefits for doing a tough and important job. The problem in Montgomery is not its teachers. Rather, it is that the MCEA, the largest union in the county, is in effect hiring its own bosses -- members of the school board, who vote on the teachers' contract, and County Council members, who approve the overall county budget -- and is getting paid for it in the bargain. This twisted system has fueled skyrocketing payroll costs -- including a 23 percent pay raise for a typical teacher over the past three years, plus extraordinary health and retirement benefits -- even as private-sector wages have stagnated.

Most elected officials, too fearful of the union to object, rubber-stamp the teachers' contract and the county budget, thereby repaying the union for its backing. Other big public employees unions in the county, jealous at the terms extracted by the MCEA, use the teachers' contract as a benchmark for their own negotiations, creating a self-perpetuating spiral of unaffordable concessions by the county. Little wonder that the county is facing staggering deficits -- $600 million on a budget of $4.3 billion in the fiscal year starting this summer. And it's no surprise either that despite the county's severe budget problems, the MCEA is still demanding raises in the current contract negotiations. As the teachers union gears up to make endorsements in this fall's elections, county taxpayers should clutch their wallets tightly.

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