Wednesday, April 2, 2008

Elrich questions Weast meeting with unions

Superintendent expresses support for Navarro candidacy

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Montgomery County Councilman Marc Elrich says Schools Superintendent Jerry D. Weast overstepped his bounds as policy maker when he invited labor union officials to his home and backed school board president Nancy Navarro in the race for the vacant District 4 County Council seat.

Weast called union leaders to his home Friday, Feb. 29, and Sunday, March 2, according to people who attended the meetings.

Leaders of the teachers, principals and school staff unions, which have all endorsed Navarro, were at both meetings, they said.

At the first meeting, Weast said that the unions should endorse Navarro for the County Council, according to a person who talked about what happened on the condition of not being identified.

‘‘What’s the role of the superintendent? Is he a political actor or a professional [working for the schools]?” Elrich (D-At-large) of Takoma Park asked.

‘‘School policy, that’s his domain, and council members don’t make school policy,” said Elrich, a former Montgomery County public school teacher.

Merle Cuttita, president of Service Employees International Union Local 500, which represents schools’ non-teaching staff, said she attended one of the meetings at Weast’s North Potomac home about the budget. But talk turned to the council race and candidates for about half an hour, Cuttita said.

Asked whether endorsements in the county council race were part of the discussion, Cuttita said: ‘‘I don’t know that I’d put it that way — you can certainly get around to [such issues].”

They ‘‘chatted about it,” she said.

Asked if Weast or anyone at the meeting tied support for Navarro to assurances that teacher and school staff contracts would not be cut, Cuttita said: ‘‘No.”

‘‘It’s all in how they interpreted what they heard,” Cuttita said. ‘‘What I heard was we have to take a look at all the candidates.”

But the superintendent ‘‘put in his two cents’ worth,” she said.

‘‘He let us know that she would be a good candidate for county council ... that Nancy Navarro would be a good candidate for the council,” Cuttita said.

Cuttita said she did not remember Weast’s recommending anyone else.

Weast, through his chief of staff Brian K. Edwards, declined to comment for this report.

‘‘The superintendent’s not going to comment on rumors,” Edwards said Tuesday. ‘‘Why wouldn’t he support Nancy?”

But making a point of his support to the unions is another matter, Elrich said.

‘‘They know if they make him unhappy there will be consequences,” Elrich said. ‘‘If that meeting happened, it destroys the bargaining process.”

When the school budget is being decided, it is not uncommon for the unions to meet with Weast at his house on weekends, Cuttita said.

‘‘There’s been nothing to show Ms. Navarro has been anything but honest and straightforward” with school workers, Cuttita said.

Edwards also said it is not unusual for Weast to have meetings with union leaders and that he will also meet regularly with the unions through May to discuss the school system’s proposed $2.11 billion operating budget.

Montgomery County Councilwoman Valerie Ervin (D-Dist. 5) of Silver Spring and Navarro attended the second meeting at Weast’s house with union officials, according to Navarro and others.

Ervin did not return calls for comment.

Navarro said she knew nothing about the Friday meeting, but that she and Ervin, who was named chairwoman of the Council’s education committee late last month, did meet with Weast and union leaders on Sunday at the superintendent’s home to talk about the school system’s budget dilemma.

At no point did the group talk about an endorsement for the County Council’s District 4 seat, Navarro said.

‘‘This was not an endorsement meeting,” Navarro said.

Navarro said the issue is being pushed by opponents to try to damage her campaign.

Rebecca Newman, president of the county principals union, said she remembers little being said at the meeting about the candidates or by the superintendent.

‘‘I’ve not walked away thinking my arm was twisted to support any candidate,” Newman said. ‘‘I think the contracts are always an issue as it relates to the budget. Obviously, as a union leader, we’re very concerned about the budget and our programs.”

Weast’s home meeting with Ervin, Navarro and the unions is only unethical if they met after Navarro filed for the County Council’s District 4 seat, said school board member Stephen N. Abrams (Dist. 2) of Rockville, who is also an attorney.

‘‘It may still be out of the ordinary,” he said. ‘‘But if you have a strategic session being held for a filed candidate, then you have a completely different ball game.”

Navarro announced in late February that she would run for the council’s District 4 seat, but did not officially file for candidacy until March 10 — a week after the second meeting at Weast’s house.

‘‘There’s nothing I would find inappropriate on the superintendent’s part. You’re basically in an advisory position,” said Abrams, a school board member for almost 16 years. ‘‘It may not be the smartest thing to do, but it’s not unethical.”

The teacher’s union ‘‘always” tries to get school board members elected to the council, said its executive director Tom Israel.

Israel said there were no deals cut to endorse Navarro.

‘‘It’s not Dr. Weast’s place or anybody else’s place to tell us who to recommend,” Israel said. ‘‘That kind of suggestion would have been out of line.”

Israel said it is clear to union members that ‘‘Navarro would be better for schools than Don Praisner,” a reference to the husband of late Councilwoman Marilyn J. Praisner, whose death Feb. 1 created the vacancy.

Don Praisner, who is one of four Democrats and four Republicans running in the primary, did not return calls for comment.