A proposal that could lead to nonunion Charles County teachers paying a fee to the union for representation in contract negotiations picked up a key supporter in the Southern Maryland legislative delegation this week.

In comments during a meeting Tuesday morning of state lawmakers, county commissioners and the Board of Education, state Sen. Thomas McLain Middleton (D-Charles) indicated his sympathies were with the the idea of allowing the union to bargain with the Board of Education for a contract provision that would allow the group to charge nonmembers a fee for representation in negotiations and other legal proceedings.

However, the proposal continues to divide the school board and failed to gain any more ground among its members.

The Education Association of Charles County, the teachers bargaining group, has been asking for the so-called agency fees for years. By law, the association is required to represent all teachers regardless of their membership status. About 75 percent of the county's teachers are members of the group.

In September, the EACC asked the school board to include authority to bargain over such fees as part of the legislative package it presented to the Southern Maryland delegation this week. After a heated debate, the proposal failed on a 3 to 3 vote, with school board member Kathy Levanduski absent from the meeting. Since then Levanduski has said she would support a fee with some modifications, including giving nonmembers a vote in contract negotiations if they will be paying for the representation.

EACC representatives called the tie vote a procedural hangup that is hurting the morale of teachers.

"As far as we're concerned, it's a 4 to 3 vote," said representative Meg MacDonald. Levanduski again was not present for the agency fee discussion at Tuesday's meeting.

School board members disagreed as to whether the tie vote means that the board opposes the idea or does not have a stance on it when Middleton asked them to state their position.

"It's important for me to know what's your official position," Middleton asked the board.

"We took no position," said member Mary L. Haff, who voted in favor of the fee.

"It was a tie vote. Tie votes fail," member Sharon W. Caniglia said afterward.

Caniglia has been adamant about her opposition to the fee. "We're on the other side of the bargaining table. If we support this we're giving the other side a tool in making [the process] more difficult," she said.

School board chairman Wayne Cooper, who voted against the fee, said the board would not push the proposal this year. "For this year, this is how it stands," he said.

Nevertheless, the group has at least one sympathizer among the Southern Maryland delegation.

"I'm a firm believer in no taxation without representation, and the reverse is true," Middleton said. "I don't see [the current situation] as an equal playing field."

Middleton has requested that the EACC provide him with data on the amount of money they spend representing nonmembers.

County commissioners plan to discuss the fee proposal in the coming weeks as they consider what to include in the legislative package they will ask the county's delegation to support in Annapolis next year.

At the Tuesday meeting, Middleton also discussed bringing driver's education back to public schools.

In other legislative issues, the school board wants the delegation to oppose agency shops, which would require all teachers to join the union. The board wants support for legislation giving the Juvenile Services Administration authority over juveniles ages 10 to 16 who are not going to school; and for a review and possible increase of board members' salaries beginning in 2002.

CAPTION: SEN. THOMAS M. MIDDLETON. . . asks for data on nonmembers.