Getting Schooled on the BCPSS Teacher Contract

Getting Schooled on the BCPSS Teacher Contract

Eleven percent of teachers would vote to extend the contract. Photo by: Iris Kirsch.
Eleven percent of teachers would vote to extend the contract. Photo by: Iris Kirsch.

October 14 of 2010 was a monumental day. On that day, the Baltimore Teachers Union (BTU), Local 340 of the American Federation of Teachers (AFT), voted down the contract which had been put before us by so-called labor-management cooperation. After some shenanigans, the contract passed in a re-vote, and workers in Baltimore schools have been suffering under the pseudo-merit-pay system for three years. Now, negotiations are back open. And teachers are standing up.

The Back Story

The AFT is 1.5 million members strong in a country of about 314 million. The circles of people doing union work have grown quite small in the last three decades, and I met someone at the Red Emma’s moving party who had been working at the national AFT office in D.C. at that time. He described to me the terrible scene we’d created for them: they had ordered festive food and champagne and even decorated their office in anticipation of the “landmark” contract passing in Baltimore. When the results came in that evening, with 1,540 union members voting against the contract and only 1,107 for it, my source told me “first it was like letting the air out of a balloon. Then they started cursing, yelling. I was a little afraid.”

Over the next several weeks, the national AFT office sent dozens of staff members to Baltimore to explain the contract to us. The prevailing rhetoric at the time was that we didn’t understand what it was we were signing, and that what we needed was simply explanation and reassurance.

Educators for Democratic Schools (EDS), the union caucus of which I am a founding member, formed around the original contract vote. We saw the potential for this contract to hurt teachers and students, and worked together to get good information out to teachers and staff about the implications of the contract. Members of EDS attended as many of these sessions as was reasonable, always asking questions about the effects the contract would have on teachers and students. Many times, we were simply told that we shouldn’t worry about any of those effects, because the new contract would make us so rich, we would have no more cares in the world.

At one such session I attended, an AFT staffer chastised Baltimore teachers for having voted down the contract they’d worked so hard on. He told us this was the first time since 1957 that any AFT local anywhere voted down a contract their union had negotiated. (Since then, I have not found any direct documentation to support that claim, but nor have I found any instance that disproves it.) I raised my hand, and politely pointed out that that means it should be taken quite seriously. The man looked at me like I was stupid and explained, slowly, that if no one else does something, we shouldn’t either.

The contract passed by a narrow margin in a second vote about a month later.

One of the oft-mentioned clauses in Article 5.2 (A) of the contract stipulates:

By no later than June 30, 2011, [the Joint Oversight Committee will] certify that: 1) the district has the administrative capacity to implement the [Baltimore Professional Practices and Student Learning Program, or system of Achievement Units] BPPSLP, 2) the district has developed an infrastructure to implement the BPPSLP, and 3) standards related to implementation, systems of support, and professional context including teaching and learning conditions have been adopted by the Joint Oversight Committee. If the Joint Oversight Committee does not so certify, the BPPSLP shall terminate on June 30, 2011, and the contract shall be reopened for a cost of living increase on the then existing pay scale.

We pointed out, time and again, that the Baltimore City Schools budget could not support the salaries possible under this contract. We expressed frustration at the difficulty we often have simply renewing our certification, asking whether adding paperwork and documentation to the process of getting our hard-earned raises was wise. We were assuaged, time and again, with the language in 5.2 (A)—if it doesn’t work out in a year, they told us, we’ll reopen negotiations to get you a fair raise.

The Plot Thickens

In the summer of 2011, EDS requested a meeting with BTU president Marietta English. We had ample proof that these benchmarks had not been met. For example, much of the “menu” of ways to earn Achievement Units (AUs), and thereby earn raises, was still unfinished at that time. We had also seen no data to suggest that the district could really afford these contracts in the long run. Around that time, EDS member Bill Bleich expressed in an email his concern:

Perhaps this contract is a gateway contract to mass layoffs and benefits cuts. What if this overly expensive contract was designed to drain the system of money, make teachers appear greedy, so that the next contract will create a "inevitable" situation of layoffs and benefit cuts due to a budget shortfall from the "greedy teachers" wanting the current agreement.

Ms. English agreed to meet with us in late August of 2011. We sent a small deligation, believing we were meeting with just her. However, when we arrived, we were ushered into a large conference room, where members of the Joint Governing Panel and Joint Oversight Committees—two groups formed of teacher-level staff but taken out of the classroom temporarily to implement the contract—were nervously milling about. The meeting lasted about an hour, during which time members of these groups told us how hard they had been working.

We were stunned. Certainly, none of us intended to imply that anyone wasn’t working hard enough. In fact, our message was the opposite: this contract will take too much energy away from teaching and caring for our children, and even with all of the energy possible dedicated to its proper implementation, may not serve our children. We were told, in no uncertain terms, that the union’s leadership was very invested in the success of the contract, and they had no intention of fighting for anything that might have a different end.

The 2011-2012 school year started the week after that meeting. We soon saw one way the district intended to save money. With the new system, staff only got pay raises after accumulating twelve AUs. One recieved AUs for their end-of-year evaluation, and could also earn them other ways—though at the time, the only clear way to earn them was to spend money on graduate coursework. In order to get twelve AUs, a teacher needed the highest rating (Proficient) on their evaluation.

In the past, teachers had been evaluated by looking at the work they were doing. However, in order to qualify for federal Race to the Top money, Maryland had to start tying school staff’s evaluations to students' performance, especially test scores. Therefore, in Baltimore, where many students live below the poverty line, and a large minority are underprepared for their age group in reading and math, teachers are now being evaluated based in part on their students’ abilities to pass grade-level assessments.

Starting in 2011, principals were told that if the majority of their students were not passing these grade-level assessments, they could not rate many teachers proficient. One department head was told, at the beginning of that year, that if she wanted to rate one of her teachers proficient “you better have enough documentation to sink a ship backing it up."

This led to an abrupt drop in the number of educators rated proficient. (Full disclosure, my rating dropped during that time from proficient to satisfactory. Erica Green, the Education Writer for the Baltimore Sun, wrote a great article that I’m quoted in. Note the quotes from Diane Ravich in her article, which corroborate the fear expressed by Bliech that these new evaluation procedures may be an intentional move to “demoralize” teachers and, as Green puts it, “evaluate them out of the classroom”.)

The creators of the contract had seen this coming. Article 5.2(A) also states that the Joint Oversight Committee will "Determine whether there are worksites that have experienced significant change in the proportion of teachers receiving lower evaluations as compared to the previous school year. If so, an investigation shall be conducted..." I believe the BTU did push for some investigation, but many teachers I knew saw their end-of-year evaluations drop from the previous year, and I don’t know of any principal that was censured for it.

Still, getting a satisfactory rating does not jeopardize one’s job. One receives nine AUs for a satisfactory evaluation, and can make up the other three by taking a class, or filing a large amount of paperwork related to professional development. The part of it that’s harder to make up for is the severe drop in morale caused by being constantly told that one is not working hard enough, or not doing well enough.

I am not a morning person. Many days, I have willed myself out of bed sheerly on the thought that once I get to school, I will feel better. Last year was one of the hardest of my life, because I would try to tell myself that, but know it wasn’t true. Teaching, counseling students, or working in any capacity in a Baltimore City School means daily facing the ugly effects poverty, hunger, racism, and systemic neglect are having on our youth, and on our future. It’s hard work, but deeply rewarding when one is getting any modicom of respect and encouragement. It’s almost impossible to do in a toxic environment, in which one is told they’re failing these children.

Where We Stand

As of this Fall, the terms of the contract will be up. Although negotiations for the next contract were scheduled to start last November, a source inside the union leadership told me that they started quite recently.

EDS is working to ensure that this time, the voices of union members are put first.

Last Thursday, EDS held a press conference at North Avenue to roll out the results of our recent survey. We got some good coverage, including a very interesting article in The Sun. Erica Green got BTU president Marietta English to talk about our survey. Her response is interesting. She spoke of clarifying misconceptions, and streamlining processes, but didn’t address most of the fundamental concerns raised by the survey. In fact, according to Green, “English said the union has conducted its own survey, and the responses are vastly different than the one conducted by EDS. She also questioned the validity of the group's results.” However a search of the BTU website did not, at time of printing, turn up any survey results.

The EDS survey was conducted over the course of several months beginning late last year and finally closing about a month ago. It was offered to every teacher at about ten schools, as well as every teacher in the room during several city-wide professional development events. Teachers who were in favor of the contract, or critical of the group, were often vocal about their participation in the survey. Still, the results showed that only eleven percent of teachers would be willing to vote for this contract again.

Because the end of the school year is a difficult time to organize teachers to do anything but move books, we decided against a rally, instead holding the small press conference. Six members of EDS came out, with hand-drawn pie charts showing some of the survey results, which we intended to deliver to Tisha Edwards, recently named interim CEO as Dr. Andrés Alonso leaves the city. (Unfortunatly, the sky opened up and the pie got ruined with rain water. It seemed in poor taste to offer such a thing to anyone, so it found it’s final resting place in a trash can inside the school board building.)

The oddest participants in our press conference were the ten or so members of the BTU executive board who showed up with signs exclaiming “I support the contract!” I guess they were there in case TV cameras came. Luckily, they never left the steps of the North Ave. building, so from the road, they appeared to be part of our group. Their numbers brought us from a fairly paltry display, appropriate only for a press conference, to a small but lively demonstration. I was quietly appreciative.

Of course, it wasn’t that strange to have them come out vocally in support of the contract. Its passage has raised the status of the executive board. Also, achievement units for union work were very clearly spelled out, and are rarely refused, a problem many other workers have experienced.

So, it’s a mark of pride for union and school board officials, and a frustration for a lot of teachers. But is it improving conditions for students and teachers? Article 5.2 (G) of the current contract states:

By no later than January 30, 2013, the Joint Oversight Committee must certify that a research base and body of evidence upon which the BPPSLP concept has improved professional practices, increased student learning, and increased career acceleration and opportunities as evidenced by increased interval and Pathway movement and lead teacher placement. If the Joint Oversight Committee does not so certify, the BPPSLP shall terminate on January 30, 2013, and the then existing pay scale shall be converted into a traditional salary scale based upon steps and lanes with no loss of salary or benefits.

I have yet to see any of this proof.

Of course, it will be hard to measure whether “career acceleration and opportunities” have increased. Baltimore City Schools has been operating in a hiring freeze for many of the past several years. The only new hires are those coming in through Teach for America (TfA) and The Baltimore City Teaching Residency (BCTR), both of which are alternative certification programs which provide on-the-job training for people without teaching credentials (and often with no background in education). As more experienced teachers have left the system, discouraged, to head for greener pastures in county schools or other fields, they have been replaced with eager, young people, most of whom have no intention of teaching for more than a few years.

The easiest way to earn AUs is by taking university or Department of Education-sponsored courses. For young people, just out of college, without many family responsibilities, this is easy. Indeed, many young people join Teach for America as a way to earn a Masters Degree without accumulating much debt. Older, veteran teachers may have already completed most of their required coursework, and be more interested in spending their time innovating for their students. They may have young children or aging parents to care for. It is therefore possible that data will show that a great number of teachers accelerated their compensation beyond what was possible before this contract. However, many of those teachers will leave after 2-5 years, and take the tens of thousands of dollars they’ve earned with them.

Furthermore, TfA openly encourages its corps members to advance into school leadership roles. We now have people in their mid-twenties leading professional development and even leading schools.

I spoke with one of the women from the union office who came to counter demonstrate at our press conference about the problem of people not committed to our children getting run away raises and then leaving. She acknowledged it as a problem, but dismissed it as an unrelated one.

But why isn’t that open for negotiations? At the end of every school year, dozens of teachers are surplused from their positions, often at the last minute, and shuffled around from school to school. Some leave the district rather than go through the disheartening process of applying for positions late in the game. And some of them are replaced, the very next year, by new teachers from alternative certification programs. That seems like an issue the union should address.

The first installation of this column, almost a year ago, explained the difference between service model unionism and organizing model unionism. Chicago Public Schools are under attack, but they’re in a better position than most of the urban school districts in the country. And they were able to successfully vote down a merit pay contract. And have it stick. The source of their power is their strong commitment to the organizing model.

Baltimore needs an organizing model union. Frederick Douglass tells us that "If there is no struggle, there is no progress." Teachers and school-based workers can make a difference just by calling or emailing the BTU staff, telling them what you want. You’re welcome to repeat the demands EDS derived from the survey:

  1. Abolish AUs, abolish the current “merit” pay system, and abolish the Joint Governing Panel. Return to a pay system with steps according to years of service. No one will move backward in pay, and those with banked AUs will be remunerated for them.
  2. Seven percent pay raise—added to each person’s current salary—each year for the next two years.
  3. Maximum Total Student Load (TSL) of 100 students for those with five classes, 60 for those with three classes, and 20 for those with one class.
  4. The right to grieve or appeal the content—not just procedural violations—of ratings and write-ups for observations and evaluations.
  5. Reasonable case-load maximums for counselors, social workers, and other teacher-level service providers, so our students can be better-served.
  6. An observation and evaluation tool for teacher-level staff—who are not regular classroom teachers—based upon criteria that truly reflect their actual responsibilities. Similarly—if the Model pathway still exists in the new contract—a process for achieving placement on the Model pathway that truly acknowledges the specific services provided by each category of teacher-level staff that are not regular classroom teachers.

But we’d rather teachers let our union know what you want. Let them know how you feel about AUs, seniority, and the climate at your school for the last three years.

And let’s not pretend that the union bureaucracy is the enemy. They are still our representatives, even if we might be better off speaking for ourselves. Contact the school board, and tell them that you didn’t become a teacher to make $80,000 a year, you became a teacher because you want to help children—and that there is a claim to be made that this contract is good for teachers, but it is decidedly bad for the children we serve.

Iris Kirsch

Iris Kirsch is a Baltimore City Public School teacher and a worker-owner of the Red Emma's Bookstore Coffeehouse. A native New Yorker, ze has been living in Baltimore for the past 13 years and loves it. Ze is a voracious reader, an amateur costumer, and a perennial joke-player. Some of zer articles are partially ghost-written by zer cat, Cat Jones.