In January, Prince George's County teachers came 400 strong to a public hearing at Largo High School, imploring the school board for more money and smaller classes.
Their starting demandwas an outrageous 42.4 percent wage hike.
It February, hundreds of them went on a sick-out from school and circled the home of board chairman Jo Ann Bell in their cars, honking to show solidarity like the anti-war protestors some of them were less than 10 years ago.
And last June 18, in what might have been a last hurrah, 300 elected representatives of the schools turned thumbs down, by a 4-to-1 vote, on putting a contract settlement proposed by the county school board before the 6,800 members of the Prince George's County Educators Association. They said the offer's effective 9 percent raise followed by a maximum 7.7 percent next year was too little and, more importantly, came too late in the school year for the teachers to properly consider it.
Yet one month later the 11-member executive board of the union voted to send an almost identical contract to the rank and file. The offer, called "the best we can get" by the union leadership, is expected to get the 50-percent-plus-one of the mail-in ballots required for approval when the votes are counted in two weeks.
According to a hard core of about 300 teachers, perhaps the most active 5 percent of the membership, the contract is a result of collaboration between the union hierarchy and school Superintendent Edward J. Feeney.At a meeting of about 400 teachers at Largo High School last week the activists urged teachers to join a last-ditch telephone campaign to stop ratification of the contract.
"Feeney still looks at board members and teachers with a plantation mentality," said dissident union executive bord member Paul Pinsky, who helped organize the meeting and voted against the contract offer. "Once again Dr. Feeney makes a demand and someone in the leadership says, 'Yes sir,'" Pinsky told the meeting.
In support of the offer, both the school system and the union hit the rank and file this week with almost identical literature making the following points:
Next year the "average" teacher with 12 years of experience and a master's degree will make $24,518, less than the same teacher in Fairfax or the District of Columbia but second only to Montgomery County in Maryland.
The effective 9 percent wage increase that goes into effect seven weeks into the new contract year is the second highest rate of pay negotiated for any Maryland teachers this year.
The only way to give teachers a higher raise under the $308 million school budget that has been approved by the school board and the County Council would be to cut deeply into instructional programs or into a planned reduction in class sizes. The class size reduction has already been cut by two-thirds to make possible funding of the contract.
One County Council member said of the 11th-hour dispute, "what you are seeing now is as much a power struggle as it is about money."
At the heart of the activists' accusations of a sellout was the treatment of former chief negotiator David Graham, an National Education Association staffer hired for the contract talks. Graham was responsible for the controversial 42.4 percent wage hike demand that several union leaders privately diwowned to a reporter. The negotiating team and Graham were replaced by a panel including union president John Sisson and union executive director Fred Rummage after the talks reached an impasse in March. Graham was offered a consulting role in the subsequent talks, which he refused, according to Sisson.
"The superintendent would not agree to resumption of negotiations with the team," said Sisson. "Graham was seen by the other side as an obstacle to a settlement."
School officials said Graham was an irritant in the talks and that his militant tactics were not in keeping with past negotiating practice.
"There is just not the gentleman's mentality with him," one union official said.
Several members of the original negotiating team are now at the core of the anti-contract movement.
"The think that upsets me more than anything else is that the procedure is being short circuited," said Jim McLean, a member of both bargaining teams who felt that the second offer, should have gone to the representative council first. Sisson said there was no time to get a quorum of the representatives before the contract was to expire on July 31.
Pinsky and union executive board member Marjorie Spirer admit they have little chance of persuading teachers to reject the contract because, without a contract, the school board could set its own wage scale and other provisions, as it already has done on a temporary basis pending the contract vote. As teacher Stan Truman, who made a particularly stirring speech before the school board in the same Largo High School meeting last January, pointed out wryly last week:
"I don't see many heroes in here."