Crucial teacher contract issues -- primarily involving money -- remain unresolved, with barely two weeks to go until the Montgomery County school board's budget deadline.
"It's a critical situation to be in anything less than settlement at this point," said David Eberly, president of the Montgomery County Education Association, the union representing more than 80 percent of the county's 6,000 teachers.
The school board must include teacher salaries in the operating budget for next year that it is required to submit to the County Council. Teacher pay is one of the chief stumbling blocks preventing a contract settlement, according to negotiators on both sides.
If an agreement is not reached by the Feb. 14 budget deadline, state law empowers the board to include teacher salary figures without a contract settlement. Teachers would then have to decide whether to work without a contract.
Maryland state law prohibits teachers from striking. But Walt Rogowski, a newly hired negotiator for the teachers' union, said a strike is still a possibility.
During an interview at MCEA's Rockville office, Rogowski criticized the numerous state-imposed negotiation deadlines he claimed create "a system which does not provide both parties with equal power." c
"With all these deadlines, there's one date I look at. That's the Monday after Labor Day when children are supposed to go back to school," he said.
County teachers, who have a starting salary of $11,003 and now are the lowest paid in the metropolitan area, seek a 15 percent increase. As recently as Jan. 21, an MCEA memo to members termed "insulting" a school board offer of an increase of about 4 percent, less than a third of the current inflation rate. Neither side would give an exact figure on the amount of the offer.
Rogowski said, "Our wages have not kept up anywhere near the inflationary spiral. We do not compare favorably with our colleagues in the area or in other parts of the country where wealth is equal to Montgomery County."
Because of the low salaries, Rogowski continued, teachers cannot afford to live in Montgomery County, and frequently must commute from other areas with gas costs cutting deeper into their paychecks.
Teachers also point to the proposed pay schedule for county employes, who are guaranteed an increase equal to 75 percent of the inflation rate, which is now about 12 percent.
Board member Marian Greenblatt attributed the teachers' low salaries to a rate of inflation that was not anticipated when the last contract was negotiated in 1977.
"Other jurisdictions have negotiated contracts since then. The board is well aware of how we rank in salaries," she said.
Greenblatt said that while the board wants to be fair to school employes and to attract good teachers, board members must consider the total budget. She added that every percentage point of increase in teachers' pay costs Montgomery County more than $2 million.
Negotiations began in October but the state school superintendent's office declared an impasse on Dec. 20, when both sides reported that they could not reach an agreement.
School board and MCEA teams agreed on an independent arbitrator as required by state law.They selected Charles Mullin, an industrial mediator based in Pittsburgh, who participated in Montgomery County teacher contract negotiations in 1974 and 1977.
Mullin spent 10 days attempting to mediate the escalating labor dispute. Despite long hours of discussion, Mullin left last week with the key issues unresolved. As required, he filed a report from Pittsburgh. Each side is to consider his findings for five days and then renegotiate.
Contacted at his Pittsburgh office, Mullin said he did not have "the wildest idea" how his report would be received. He said he preferred contracts to be resolved through mediation, and that he was still hopeful both sides would reach an agreement based on his report.
Chief school board negotiator Robert Cooney would not comment on the salary issue or other aspects of the negotiations but said, "I am hopeful an agreement will be reached."
Teacher union representatives are not as optimistic: "We are still far apart on many issues," Ragowski said.
Other contract items still unresolved include:
Employe benefits and compensation for extracurricular activities.
Working hours and workload.
Procedures for transfers and reduction in professional staff.
Strike laws, since teachers would like to see legislation revoked that now prohibits strikes.
Another point of contention is the length of the contract. The current contract, which will expire in July, was a three-year agreement. Teachers say they now realize unpredictable economic forces make long-term contracts unwise, and are asking for a one-year contract.
Paralleling teacher contract talks, negotiations are at the same stage for the union representing about 5,000 school janitors, secretaries and other supporting staff workers. This week an independent mediator, unable to resolve contract issues, sent a reporter on recommendations to both the workers' union and school board.
Similar issues, including wages, working hours and workload, layoffs and strike benefits, are holding up an agreement between the board and the Montgomery County Council of Supporting Services Employes.