With health care a sticking point in the stalled contract talks between the St. Mary's County public school system and its teachers, the school district said it will hold voluntary information sessions about health coverage, according to a letter made public last week by the Board of Education.

The sessions are an attempt to address what the school district considers one of its key points in the negotiations: A less expensive option is available with services comparable to the health plan that enrolls 51 percent of the 1,130 employees represented by the union.

"We do agree that many teachers do not have the accurate and complete information needed to understand the insurance options," states the Jan. 29 letter signed by all five school board members. It is addressed to Wanda Twigg, president of the Education Association of St. Mary's County. "Therefore," the letter continues, "immediately we will schedule information sessions at all schools in conjunction with our health insurance provider, CareFirst." Andre{acute}s Becerra, chief negotiator for the union, who is employed by the Maryland State Teachers Association and based in St. Mary's County, said the school district's latest move is belated and self-serving. The union previously asked the district to inform employees about their options, he said, and the school system also has a financial stake in the outcome of the employees' decisions.

"Our members are not stupid . . . they know that this is a hotly debated issue. If the board goes in right now, it's highly suspect as far as their motives. So we feel it's not the right time," Becerra said.

Edward O'Meally, a Towson attorney hired as chief negotiator for the school district, said St. Mary's has given employees information in the past and wants to inform them again -- though the sessions will be voluntary.

"We intend to do that, hopefully with [the union's] assistance and certainly not in a situation where we have mandatory attendance," he said. "No one is going to be forced to come and hear our insurance reps from Blue Cross Blue Shield and CareFirst talk about the merits of switching to the PPN" -- the less expensive plan.

The communique{acute} from the Board of Education was the latest development in the march toward a new contract. A half-dozen teachers wearing stickers that said "respect" attended the school board meeting last week and asked the board to reconsider health care changes.

The current two-year contract will expire June 30.

Union representatives questioned the public disclosure of the letter by board Chairman Stephen Kracinovich. They were visibly upset at the meeting, which was the first time they heard about it. "If anything was on the horizon that affected communication, [O'Meally] would pick up the phone and call me," Becerra said.

O'Meally said he first heard of the letter Wednesday morning. He said the impetus for the letter was to let the union know that the district is interested in talking. "We look forward to a continuation of negotiations once our staff has received the insurance information and has a better understanding of the insurance options," he said. The letter instructs the union to call O'Meally "when you want to resume negotiations."

Twigg said late Friday that the union's position on resuming negotiations was unchanged from when talks broke down Jan. 22. "We are not ready to go back to the table until the board's team is ready to make some movement on their best and final offer," she said.