It’s not just frustrated and disgruntled members of the public who are looking to bring their government to a local level closer to the people, rebelling against what they consider outsized influence from Washington and the various state capitals. In the case of the Wicomico County Education Association (WCEA) – a bargaining unit representing teachers and various other school employees in this semi-rural outpost of the Eastern Shore of Maryland – their aim is to break away from the much larger Maryland State Education Association (MSEA), making the case in an open letter from WCEA president Kelly Stephenson to the MSEA and community that:
In the years I have been representing WCEA, several things have become clear for all to see. First, many school employees believe MSEA has not represented them properly over the last decade and find it ironic that your people only show up when the $537,000 dues money is at risk. It is clear that you and your people on the “other side of the bridge” have a different agenda from those of us on this side of the bridge. Wicomico County, to most of us, is like a family – WCEA will work out our problems for the betterment of all – not just for the betterment of the Annapolis elite. In short, WCEA Board has heard repeatedly that your organization’s presence is not seen as a plus for our community.
And those fighting words serve to buttress one point: MSEA representation is expensive for the average teacher in Wicomico County. Depending on salary and position, annual dues can range from $197.28 to $598.50. Supporters claim the WCEA proposal would shave up to $260 off that cost.
But controversy has been brewing for several years, and heads were turned in 2012 when it was learned that an embezzlement case in adjacent Worcester County was handled internally by MSEA and the local association rather than alerting authorities at the time of discovery back in 2009 – the thefts occurred over a three-year period before that. Meanwhile, complaints began to pile up in Wicomico County about ineffective representation services, a lack of support in negotiations, concerns about the political direction and activities of the state union – which endorsed Democratic Lt. Gov. Anthony Brown a year ahead of this November’s election and commissioned polls to tout his lead – and constantly increasing dues, particularly when union leadership was making far more than the average Wicomico County teacher.
Exasperated, WCEA members started a petition drive to change the local unit’s bylaws and remove the provision requiring concurrent membership in the MSEA and National Education Association (NEA), citing the concern that membership rolls were dwindling because many potential members simply could not afford the dues. Local leadership has been careful to stress that WCEA members may still be members of MSEA/NEA if desired – although apparently the MSEA begs to differ:
It is difficult to understand why the MSEA leadership has suggested they would not welcome you in the future to be a member of MSEA if WCEA chooses to disaffiliate when the information on the MSEA website tells a different story. From the MSEA website under FAQs:
“Q: How do I join MSEA?
A: If you are employed in professional education work for any school district in the state of Maryland, are a student or retired educator, or work for an accredited institution of higher education, you are eligible to become a member of MSEA as well as your local association and NEA.”
The WCEA goes on to say that many of its benefits would continue even without MSEA membership – and in some cases, strictly local representation can provide members a better deal, particularly when it comes to legal representation and similar services. The WCEA also reminded its members that they are the legally recognized bargaining unit for the teachers and staff, soliciting a local attorney to verify that there is no legal connection between the WCEA and MSEA – only the membership requirement in the WCEA bylaws.
All this back-and-forth is leading up to a vote of the WCEA membership slated for April 28-29; a balloting which is expected to be close and rather divisive. Some opponents of the change are skeptical that a WCEA which “goes it alone” would be powerful enough to stand up to the local Board of Education, which by state law is appointed by a representative of Democratic Gov. Martin O’Malley and thus holds a 4-3 Democratic majority. The current teachers’ contract, which was signed last year, runs through June 30, 2016; however, health insurance coverage and other fringe benefits can be revisited on an annual basis if both sides agree.
But even if the opponents of the bylaws change prevail, it’s obvious that there are serious misgivings between the Wicomico County rank-and-file and the state union, just as there’s a great deal of skepticism from the residents of the state’s Eastern Shore about the goings-on within state government in general. Chesapeake Bay is much more than a body of water dividing the state geographically; it also seems to separate the two sides in politics and their all-around attitude towards life. Politically, the Eastern Shore sends a significant share of the state’s minority Republicans to Annapolis and most of its counties are dominated by the GOP; moreover, the denizens of those areas east of the Chesapeake seem to take a perverse pride in being what one former governor called the state’s outhouse. (The actual term was more, shall we say, descriptive.)
So this election should be closely watched as a test case. If the local Wicomico County bargaining unit can convince their teachers that breaking away from the MSEA is to their benefit, it may encourage a number of the other counties in the state to consider a similar move, perhaps costing the MSEA several million dollars in dues they would otherwise collect. While $537,000 may not be a lot when it comes to a union’s budget – the county’s dues only cover four “average” MSEA employees – it can still be spread around to a host of state and federal elected officials, and it’s that political purchasing power MSEA worries most about losing.