In Montgomery County, scare tactics by teachers union are the norm

Thursday, February 11, 2010

MONTGOMERY COUNTY schools are among the best in the nation, a point of pride for the community and a springboard for their students. The system's teachers -- well qualified, professional and highly committed -- are its driving engine. That's why the heavy-handed tactics and occasional political thuggery of the union that represents them do a disservice not only to the county and its much-admired school system but to the teachers themselves.

As we noted on this page last week, the union, known as the Montgomery County Education Association, which represents 11,000 teachers, has increasingly played the part of kingmaker in races for local state legislative seats. Starting in 2006, it embarked on a policy of soliciting "contributions" from the candidates it endorsed on its influential "Apple Ballot." These contributions, often up to the state limit of $6,000, are said to be voluntary, and are meant to defray the cost of the union's mailings and other campaign materials.

Some candidates told us the mailings were worth it. Others said they felt compelled to pay, for fear of incurring the union's wrath, and a few who ran, or thought about running, said the union sought to intimidate them in various ways. A number of officials, including some who paid the union and some who did not, told us they saw the "contributions" as shakedowns, pure and simple. "I felt it was creepy then, and I still feel that way now," said one person subjected to the union's aggressive bid for funds.

Of 47 candidates endorsed by the union in 2006, only a handful declined to pay. One of them was Heather Mizeur, a Democrat who ran successfully for the state House of Delegates. In response, the union's chief political strategist, Jon Gerson, expressed his intense displeasure with her -- despite her solid support for teachers.

Something is seriously amiss when a union acts in this way even as it represents a group of public employees as highly regarded as Montgomery's teachers. And when elected officials, who in principle are responsible for overseeing county and school finances, including employee pay and benefits, feel intimidated by the tactics of the union representing teachers, that's a sign that democratic processes have been turned upside down. In no other county in Maryland -- including others with top-flight schools, every bit the equal of Montgomery's -- does the teachers union exercise such lopsided power, let alone compel candidates, once endorsed, to pay for its political support. This is an instance of a single special-interest group running amok.

The MCEA and some Montgomery politicians have portrayed this arrangement as akin to slates of like-minded candidates who band together and share campaign funds in an election -- a common (and sometimes corrupting) practice in Maryland. But candidates form slates based on their membership in a political party. By contrast, "Apple Ballot" candidates are not members of the teachers union -- even if some are demonstrably in the union's pocket. The Maryland State Education Association, of which the MCEA is a local affiliate, confirmed that no other local chapters follow a similar practice.

Unsurprisingly, the MCEA, backed by its anointed candidates on the Montgomery County Council, the county school board and the local delegation to the state legislature, has been able to squeeze enormous concessions from the school system in past contract negotiations. Over the past three years, the salary of a typical teacher with 10 years of experience has risen by 23 percent. Had it not been for the county's budget crunch last year, which persuaded the union to forgo part of the scheduled 2009 raise, that increase would have been closer to 30 percent. It is a measure of how twisted things have become in the county that the union depicts this as a great sacrifice.

In negotiations underway for a new contract, the MCEA is pressing for further pay hikes for most teachers, which would cost Montgomery taxpayers another $18 million. This is taking place as the county grapples with a projected budget deficit of $600 million, and as wages in the private sector are stagnant. Privately, nearly every member of the County Council and the school board says the union's demands are blatantly unrealistic. Publicly, almost all of them are too cowed by the union to say a word.

The plain fact is that in this fiscal crisis, teachers will have to make the same sort of sacrifices that others in the county have made -- including giving up on the $18 million in wage increases. The way things have been going, that might be just enough to cover the county's shortfall in funds budgeted for snow removal.

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