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Staff writer

Educators and their union representatives rang in the new year by inviting elected officials for breakfast and peppering them with questions about the upcoming session of the Maryland General Assembly.

Top on the list of concerns from the St. Mary’s and Calvert education unions was adequate funding for schools, addressing whether to require teachers to join unions, and the impact of shifting a part of the state’s share of teacher pensions to county governments.

The unions would like to see what they call “fair share” enforced. That would make all teachers, even if they are not member of the union, pay at least a portion of dues to help cover costs that benefit all employees, such as legal services and negotiations.

“This cost should be shared fairly across all” school employees, said Melissa Kiernan, legislative co-chair of the Education Association of St. Mary’s County.

“We really need to look at what’s happened in other states, Michigan in particular, where you get push back” against unions, said Del. John Bohanan (D-St. Mary’s), cautioning the union representatives against being too overzealous in pushing their agenda. Bohanan noted that he supports fair-share legislation, as does Sen. Roy Dyson (D-St. Mary’s, Calvert, Charles), who did not attend the breakfast.

The other three legislators who were at the breakfast Saturday said they were against enforcing a fair-share concept for local school unions.

“I don’t support this ... I don’t believe saying to people you have to join,” Del. John F. Wood Jr. (D-St. Mary’s, Charles) said. “If you’ve got a good program, they will join.”

Del. Anthony J. O’Donnell (R-Calvert, St. Mary’s) said that the union is legally protected monopoly, and said that he does not want to force people to join an exclusive bargaining unit.

O’Donnell did find common ground with the teacher unions in his position on shifting part of the state’s share of pension costs to county governments. The union opposed tinkering with the pension system; last year local governments were required to pick up some of the costs. “I agree with you,” O’Donnell said.

Del. Mark Fisher (R-Calvert) also agreed, saying, “To me, a contract is a contract, and you hold people accountable to the contract.”

Wood said the state legislators “kicked the can down the road,” when it came to fixing the pension system.

Bohanan, on the other hand, said that the legislators had to make tough decisions to save the pension system from collapse, and that the pension changes were the right thing to do.

He said the teacher pension system was a prime example of what many Republicans call “runaway spending,” and that the fixes made to the system during the last two years were better than the alternative, which could have abolished the defined benefit system in place and instead given teachers a defined contribution retirement plan, such as a 401K investment.

Dennis Mooney, Calvert Education Association vice president, asked if the legislators would act as watchdogs to ensure county commissioners funded schools adequately, as required by the state’s maintenance of effort law.

Both St. Mary’s and Calvert counties have always met at least the minimum funding obligation to their respective school systems as defined by the law.

O’Donnell said he did not agree with the revised version of the law passed last year by the state legislators, and said the component that looks at the wealth of a county could force local governments to spend money they may not want to spend on education and force local taxes to be raised.

O’Donnell said he is not the “overlord” of the counties and that the law has penalties built in for counties that don’t “fully fund” education.

Fisher agreed, saying that money would be better spent on job creation to help “grow economies.”

Wood said taxes are too high as is, and that many retirees leave the state in search of lower taxes. “We’ve got to be able to live within our means,” he said.

The unions also questioned legislators on whether they would uphold what they called a strong charter school law in Maryland. The state teachers union supports charter schools but wants them to remain accountable to local school boards, Bill Fisher, Maryland State Education Association treasurer, said.

Wood said that he first opposed the concept of publicly funded charter schools in the state when they gained ground a decade ago.

“I’ve changed my thoughts,” he said, after realizing the benefit such schools can provide and seeing the success of some charter schools in Maryland. The Chesapeake Public Charter School in Lexington Park is the only charter school in Southern Maryland.

The union again this year asked about legislation, known as BOAST, that would offer a state tax credit for some donations given by businesses to parochial and private schools. The bill has been introduced for several years but never voted into law.

Public school unions adamantly oppose the concept, saying it takes money away from public schools.

All four legislators in attendance said they support the bill.

“I’m not out to destroy the public schools,” O’Donnell said, adding that his wife is a teacher. Still, helping parochial schools ultimately helps public schools, he said, because government does not have to pay for the full price of educating children in private and parochial schools.

“We kind of get a bargain. The parents pay the taxes but we don’t have to support the services” of offering their child a public education, O’Donnell said.

He noted that St. Mary’s County government already pays the cost of bus transportation to parochial schools, and the state helps with textbook costs to private schools.

O’Donnell said that local public schools would not easily be able to absorb all of the children from private schools if they were to close.

“I think we have an obligation. We have an obligation to educate our children whichever way they choose,” Wood said.

“There are places in this state where public education is not working,” such as Baltimore city, Fisher said, adding that parents should have alternatives like parochial schools to choose from.