Friday, April 11, 2008

Superintendent, unions take a hit on politicking

Meeting, e-mails supporting candidate raise eyebrows

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Politicking by a school superintendent and school system unions has drawn criticism from Montgomery County Council members, the school board, civic leaders and a management expert.

Schools Superintendent Jerry D. Weast called union leaders to his North Potomac home twice, reportedly to discuss budget matters, but spent half an hour offering his support for School Board President Nancy Navarro in an upcoming council election.

County Councilmen Marc Elrich (D-At large) and George L. Leventhal (D-At large) denounced the superintendent, who is in his ninth year leading the state’s largest school system.

The problem for Weast, they said, is that backing a candidate oversteps his bounds as a policymaker and trying to get a particular candidate elected could hurt his ability to work with whoever wins.

Navarro and three other Democrats are vying in an April 15 primary to win the party’s nomination to finish the term of Marilyn J. Praisner, who died Feb. 1. Four are running in the Republican primary.

The school system employs 22,000 and about half are teachers.

School union leaders ‘‘know if they make him [Weast] unhappy there will be consequences. If that meeting happened, it destroys the bargaining process,” said Elrich, a former Montgomery County Public Schools teacher, from Takoma Park.

Weast has declined to comment.

Montgomery school board member Sharon W. Cox (At-large) of Germantown has asked the board’s vice president Shirley Brandman to investigate the matter. Brandman could not be reached Thursday for comment.

But what was surprising, Cox said, is that while Navarro has said that the March 2 meeting was about the budget, no other board members were invited or told about the meeting. No school system budget officials attended.

‘‘It was not reported to the board at all,” Cox said Thursday. ‘‘I was just so surprised to see it characterized” as a budget meeting, she said. ‘‘It just seems so strange.”

And it was ‘‘unwise” on Weast’s part, said Tom Schneider, president of Restructuring Associates Inc., a Washington, D.C. based consulting firm that specializes in labor-management relations.

‘‘It’s extremely unprofessional” and would be considered so across the United States, Canada as well as in Britain and Australia, where his company also works, Schneider said.

He ‘‘certainly should not be having this conversation with someone with whom [he has] direct dealings, whether it’s through a chain of command,” Schneider said.

‘‘If it is true, it’s inappropriate,” said Leventhal, also of Takoma Park.

‘‘An appointed official not just being involved, but for an appointed official to be acting like a political boss. ... I think that’s a big problem,” said Wayne M. Goldstein, president of the Montgomery County Civic Federation. ‘‘Even party [leaders] don’t generally choose a candidate among all others.”

Adding to the controversy were messages the Montgomery County Education Association sent this week to the e-mail address of teachers who live in Praisner’s old district, a northern and eastern swath of the county.

In the e-mail, union organizer Mary Pat Spon directed the teachers to the MCEA Web site for information on the candidate the union ‘‘overwhelmingly voted to recommend.” It also included a plea for help making calls and handing out leaflets. Navarro was not named in the e-mail, but she was on the Web site.

The teachers’ contract states that ‘‘... MCEA’s position concerning any candidate for public office may not be distributed through the interschool facility or the MCPS email system.”

‘‘I can readily see how the message would lead you to question our sending of the e-mail,” Spon said in an e-mail to a teacher who raised the issue of violating the contract. ‘‘It does everything BUT identify our recommended candidate and that is the essence of our strategy to stay within MCPS rules.”

MCEA executive director Tom Israel had a different reason why the email violated no rules.

The issue, Israel said, is whether the union used the schools’ server to send the e-mail, not whether the e-mails were received through it.

‘‘The key point is it would be improper to discriminate against our union when anybody in the world can send e-mail” to teachers through the MCPS server, Israel said.

Israel said the union regularly sends other messages through the schools’ server and that teacher e-mail addresses can be found on the schools’ Web site.

Asked whether already having the e-mail addresses compiled gave the union an advantage, Israel said it would be ‘‘unreasonable” to suggest the union could not send such messages to its members.

Alison Klumpp — a teacher who is the daughter of Marilyn Praisner and Donald Praisner, a Democrat running to finish his wife’s term — disagreed.

‘‘As an MCEA member I’m very disappointed that they would stretch the rules of the contract to meet their needs, which seems pretty unfair to any other candidate following them,” Klumpp said. ‘‘I’m not just saying that because I’m Don Praisner’s daughter.”

Staff Writer Marcus Moore contributed to this report.