Calvert County teachers voted Monday to begin a "work-to-rule" action -- refusing to work more than the 7.5 hours a day required of them -- to protest stalled contract negotiations.
The Calvert County Education Association, representing more than 900 teachers, began the protest yesterday. Many teachers said they would not attend parent-teacher conferences, supervise after-school activities or grade papers after the official school day ends.
Union officials said the protest would continue until the Board of Education agrees to meet their demands for higher pay, more regular breaks and the right to union representation when called before a supervisor.
Superintendent J. Kenneth Horsmon decried the action as a bargaining tactic that would hurt students. He said some schools might need to postpone back-to-school open houses for parents this week because teachers said they would not attend.
"It's awful that they're using kids to make statements," Horsmon said. "A work-to-rule action is just not good for any school community."
The protest is the latest move in an increasingly acrimonious contract dispute between the school board and the teachers union. Negotiations have been stalled since July -- the first time that has happened in the county since the late 1970s, union officials said.
Teachers association President Shannon Fitch said he decided the work-to-rule action was necessary after he realized last week that arbitration could stretch until next year. A third-party arbitrator selected by both sides said he would not be available until February.
"That is just too long for our teachers to go without contracts," Fitch said. "We're hoping that our work action will force the board to come forward with a new offer."
Horsmon said the board would not make any offers outside the arbitration process.
"The package that we have offered is a very fair package, and we just don't have any more resources to offer," he said.
The board offered a 1 percent pay increase to teachers in the first year of a three-year contract, with an additional raise of 3 to 4 percent in each subsequent year based on the Consumer Price Index. The union proposed an increase of 2.25 percent the first year, with a fixed increase of 4.25 and 3.45 percent for the next two years.
"A 1 percent increase is just a slap in the face to all of us," said Joe Sella, a negotiator for the teachers union. "Teachers need more than that to be able to live in Calvert County."
The union is also asking the board to guarantee teachers the right to representation when they face disciplinary action. School administrators have that right under their contracts.
"It's just like your Miranda rights, we should have the right to remain silent and the right to representation," Fitch said.
Horsmon said few counties in the state guarantee teachers that sort of representation. He also said allowing union representation could slow or impede important inquiries. "We have to be able to conduct an uninhibited investigation," he said.
The third major sticking point is the union's demand for daily breaks for elementary school teachers. Middle and high schools in the county offer their teachers 45 minutes of planning time a day, but elementary teachers might get a 90-minute break one day but no break another.
Horsmon said he would be willing to compromise on the issue if he heard elementary school teachers -- rather than union negotiators -- complain about the policy. "We don't need to fix things that aren't broken," he said.
At their vote Monday and earlier that day at a few schools, some Calvert teachers, armed with signs that read "Not a Minute More" and "Fair Compensation for Quality Education," said the work-to-rule action would improve the county's schools by attracting better teachers to the area.
"We are not hurting the kids," said Helen Thompson, a fourth-grade teacher at Beach Elementary School. "We are helping them in the long run."