A laudable compromise in Montgomery County

By Ryan Miner 

Compromise-1

Rarely do opportunities arise such as this to call to mind a compromise between two entities that so often are at odds: county governments and teachers’ unions.

In April, the Montgomery County Council unhesitantly rejected Montgomery County Executive Ike Leggett’s $100 million proposals to hike public workers’ wages, a hike that would have increased teacher pay by 8 percent. Knowing that an 8.7% property tax hike was in the works, the County Council told Leggett and the Board of Education to go back to the proverbial drawing board and try again, saying the pay hike was unjustified – and it certainly was.

Incidentally, I’m not even remotely sure how the Montgomery County Council justifies an outrageous 8.7% property tax increase. But I digress.

In mid-May, Montgomery County school board president Michael Durso sent a letter to the county council stating that the school board is committed to slashing the 8 percent teacher pay raise in half, whether the union agrees or not; in Montgomery County, the county council sets pay for teachers.

The cuts, according to the Washington Post, “would free up $36 million to $37 million, which could reduce class size by an average of two students – to the level that existed in 2009.” The goal: closing the widening achievement gap.

The union and the school board continued their discussions. Remarkably, something extraordinary occurred: compromise. The union agreed to a 4.5% pay raise rather than an unfeasible 8%. Still, though, whether the union agreed to cut the 8% in half or not, state law permits the Montgomery County Board of Education to impose the cut – and they would have without the union’s pragmatic offering. But the union operated within the constraints of the fiscal realities facing Montgomery County taxpayers.

The Washington Post today featured a glowing editorial praising the compromise between the Board of Education and the union.

Here’s a snippet of the editorial:

Something remarkable is happening in Montgomery County. The biggest and most politically powerful union, which represents some 12,000 public school teachers, is positioning itself as a responsible partner rather than an antagonist in its dealings with local elected officials.

f it continues, the shift will represent an evolution in the political culture of one of the region’s biggest and most diverse localities — a traditionally labor-friendly jurisdiction of 1 million people where profound demographic change is driving a rethinking of settled assumptions.

Among those assumptions is the idea that the teachers union could intimidate politicians to the extent that it would dun candidates for public office for campaign contributions — yes, you read that right — an upside-down practice unknown in the rest of the United States. A correlate of that assumption in recent years has been that in the union’s worldview, compromise was a zero-sum game.

I’ve often been critical of the way certain labor unions bellicosely flex their political power during budget sessions, often without regard for taxpayers who foot the cost for their sometimes inane and painful demands. But it is to be understood that a labor union’s sole purpose of existence is to protect its workers’ rights and fight – rather aggressively – for fair wages.

But the rare occasion where a labor union willfully offers a pragmatic compromise with its funding entity is an opportunity to offer adequate praise. Good on the teachers’ union.

On occasion, pragmatism raises its head out of its hole and embraces its subscribers. If only we could apply this small victory at a macro level.