As a current member of the Montgomery County Board of Education and a candidate to continue in this role, I can see that improving teacher morale and student success requires a collaborative working relationship between the teachers union and the school district. Unfortunately, the relationship between the union, the Montgomery County Education Association (MCEA) and Montgomery County Public Schools (MCPS) has been strained for approximately four years and appears to have gotten only worse recently.
MCEA’s January 2022 vote of “no confidence” in the MCPS administration and its governing body, the Montgomery County Board of Education, followed by MCEA’s strong protests that MCPS has “involuntarily transferred” 12 teachers (out of a workforce of 13,000) since July 20, has increased tension between the two organizations. No one wants to require teachers to change schools, especially late in the summer, but MCPS has both the legal authority and the professional responsibility to ensure schools are staffed equitably. That said, even some MCPS administrators acknowledge that the district’s planning, collaboration with MCEA and affected teachers, and communications about the transfers could have been better. This work by MCPS is underway
, and I am optimistic thanks to the mindset and work of a new leadership team headed by newly appointed Superintendent Monifa McKnight.
The national teacher shortage (which MCPS is navigating well relative to other districts) has contributed to both the need to transfer teachers and the need to transform teaching. This transformation is necessary because teacher morale across the country has been plummeting for years, the pandemic has exhausted everyone, and student achievement and wellness have declined significantly.
The question, then, becomes where to go from here. Fortunately, we already have several structures in place, including weekly meetings between MCPS, MCEA and the district’s two other bargaining units, Service Employees International Union for non-certified staff and the Montgomery County Association for Administrators and Principals. These weekly meetings can foster improved relations between MCPS and the teachers union as well as better planning and communication about all types of staffing across the district with a few key changes in which the school board must play an active role.
First, while MCPS has made strides in sharing agenda setting with the leaders of the three bargaining units, MCPS must do more to ensure collaborative facilitation, consistent attendance by administrators, information sharing prior to meetings, and follow-up after meetings among all participants. McKnight and her new leadership team are already starting to work on this recommendation. The Board of Education will need to ensure full implementation.
My second recommendation has to do with MCEA. As my mother says: relationships are a two-way street. While MCEA is absolutely entitled to share its concerns publicly, it needs to become a less confrontational and more reliable and productive partner that promotes teacher professionalism and student success. More collaborative weekly meetings will enable MCEA as well as SEIU and MCAAP, both of which have a much more collaborative relationship with MCPS, to share concerns and provide feedback to MCPS much more productively.
Finally, we need an accountability mechanism to ensure that MCPS plays its part in fostering a true partnership with the bargaining units and that the bargaining units participate in good faith. That is why I am recommending that a school board member play a direct role in pursuit of four objectives:
- Demonstrate the board’s interest in and commitment to fostering a positive, collaborative relationship with all certified and classified staff.
- Ensure that all partners understand the board’s priorities and that a school board member, not just MCPS staff, brief the full board on the status of relationships and negotiations between MCPS and each of its three bargaining units.
- Hold MCPS accountable for sharing facilitation and information with its union partners.
- Serve as an objective observer in the event that relations among the partners fray and accusations are made publicly.
High-functioning weekly meetings will not singularly transform the relationship between MCPS and MCEA. They are, however, critical to ensuring that all parties play a meaningful role in shaping the decisions that impact student learning. A collaborative partnership among MCPS and the unions is a model that has served both well previously and is a necessary precondition for rebuilding trust and fostering equitable school cultures that enable all our children to thrive.
Scott Joftus was recently appointed to the Montgomery County Board of Education to complete the term of Pat O’Neill, who died unexpectedly. He is currently running for a full four-year term. Joftus is also the founder and president of FourPoint Education Partners, which works with school boards and superintendents across the country.