Cash on the barrel

Monday, February 22, 2010

THE UNHEALTHY alliance between the teachers union and locally elected officials in Montgomery County made a cameo appearance last year on the national stage. It promptly bombed. The incident was an embarrassment for the county and an object lesson in how far both sides -- politicians and the union itself -- have drifted into the politics of entitlement, intimidation and ethical corrosion.

The episode involved Bonnie Cullison, then chief of the teachers union, who decided to seek election to the policy-setting executive committee of the National Education Association, which represents teachers nationally. Ms. Cullison needed to raise money to pay for travel, mailings and other campaign incidentals. The usual thing would have been for her to seek contributions from teachers in Montgomery and elsewhere, among whom she has plenty of contacts. But Ms. Cullison went a step further: She hit up Maryland state legislators, particularly those the Montgomery teachers union had endorsed, asking them to contribute as much as they could.

Many lawmakers quickly obliged, dipping into their campaign accounts to finance Ms. Cullison's campaign, until the state attorney general's office blew the whistle. In an opinion, the office concluded the obvious: that funds donated to a Maryland politician's campaign are not intended to finance a national union's internal election. The Maryland State Board of Elections ordered Ms. Cullison to refund the several thousand dollars she'd raised from politicians, which she did. She lost the election.

Ms. Cullison is a well-regarded figure in local education circles. But if this incident seems odd and unseemly, that's because it is. The NEA confirmed to us that it's exceedingly unusual, if not unheard of, for candidates for leadership positions to solicit funds from public officials. Some state lawmakers complained privately about the contributions, as the Montgomery Gazette reported at the time; a number told us they resented or felt uncomfortable about being asked. However -- and here's the rub -- it all fit a pattern in Montgomery County, where the teachers union wields such outsized power that it believes shaking down politicians is normal and acceptable. In fact, it is unknown in the rest of Maryland or, as far as we know, in the United States.

As we reported in two recent editorials, the Montgomery County Education Association -- the teachers union -- makes clear that candidates who receive the union's endorsement are expected to pay the union for the campaign it mounts on their behalf. Many candidates, though certainly not all, do so gladly; in effect, they outsource their campaigns for county council, school board and state legislature to the MCEA for the privilege of being included on the union's highly influential "Apple Ballot" of approved candidates. On Election Day, the ballot is distributed at most polling places around the county by some of the 11,000 teachers the union represents.

The intimate entanglement of interests between elected officials and the union is all about swapping favors, including some rather large ones that have put county taxpayers on the hook for many millions of dollars. Most officeholders, frightened of provoking the MCEA's wrath, are loath to question any provision of the generous, and now unaffordable, contracts that the union has negotiated on behalf of teachers. In effect, local officeholders are so beholden to the union that they have forfeited their obligation to exercise independent oversight over contract negotiations.

One result is that the average salary for a Montgomery County teacher, $76,483, is the highest among suburban school systems in the Washington area, according to the Washington Area Boards of Education, a regional group. Another is that the salary of a typical Montgomery teacher -- one with 10 years of experience when the last contract went into effect in 2007 -- has jumped by 23 percent in the past three years, even as private-sector wages have stagnated. Since 2004, teacher salaries in Montgomery have increased at a significantly faster rate than in other suburban school systems -- the lone exception being Prince George's County, which started from a low base and has had to play catch-up.

Montgomery County schools are generally excellent, and teachers are prized members of the community who deserve to be well paid. It's conceivable that the outcome of a fair and balanced political process -- one where elected officials and union operatives conducted business at arm's length -- might set teachers' salaries and benefits about where they are now. But what confidence can the public have that officeholders in Montgomery are carefully weighing competing interests when most of them are held hostage to the overbearing influence of a single union?

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