After a month of town hall meetings, routine school visits and contract modifications, members of the Baltimore City Teachers Union voted in favor of what the city schools’ system calls a landmark contract negotiation.

“Teachers are at the very heart of everything we as a school district do, and unlike any other agreement until now—here or elsewhere in the country—this contract truly values teachers and gives them the opportunities for professional and financial advancement that they deserve,” said city schools CEO Andres A. Alonso. “Most importantly, it creates the structures and supports for all of our teachers to teach well, and for our students to receive the excellent instruction they deserve.”

The three-year pact ties teacher compensation to positive active involvement, positive evaluations and student performance. A newly structured four-tier career system allows opportunities for teachers to earn significant pay increases—possibly six-figure salaries. It eradicates the original teacher pay scale, which was rooted in regular raises based on tenure and allows educators to climb the career ladder in shorter increments and at their own pace.

Educators can earn yearly raises by completing “high quality” professional training, engaging in school activities and advancing through four established career paths—standard teacher, professional teacher, model teacher and lead teacher.

The Maryland State Department of Education is still evaluating how much impact student performance will have on teacher pay. BCPSS officials say the new measure gives Baltimore teachers the highest starting salary in the state, and may attract teachers from other systems.

This was the second version of the agreement. The first was rejected several weeks ago for being unclear on how teachers can advance financially.

“We heard our members loud and clear when they said they needed more information and opportunity to give feedback,” said union president Marietta English. “With our members’ help, we’ve arrived at a new contract that will improve our profession and raise the level of educational excellence in the Baltimore City public schools.”

The contract has led to polarization within the union, as demonstrated by the close vote count—1,902-1,045. Several members campaigned against the bill, arguing the measure gives administrators too much power.

Amber Wade, a kindergarten teacher at Rosemont Elementary/Middle School, says she still has questions about the contract, so she voted against it twice.

“Thank God I’m fine with my administration team, but what if there is a teacher who doesn’t mix well with an administrator?” she asked. “The administrator has so much control; they can come in a teacher’s classroom and not like their style and give you a poor evaluation.”

Wade also noted a lack of clarity on how her 4- and 5-year-old students’ performance will be evaluated.

“Everything seems to be based on money,” she said. “‘Oh, but you are going to get a raise.’ It just seems kind of sneaky to me. Who cares about the money? What is going to happen with us and the kids?”

Jessica Aldine, spokeswoman for the Baltimore Teachers Union, says she is unsure why there is still confusion surrounding the contract. “For months after the first vote, BTU reps and reps from America Federation of Teachers, which is their parent company, went to every school, so she should have had the opportunity to have her questions answered,” she said. “We held five regional meetings, town hall meetings, and robocalls.”

Teacher evaluations will remain unchanged until the 2012-13 school year, she said, and the state’s education department is still developing how Wade and other teachers will be compensated for student performance.

Nicole Stich, who is in her fourth year as an instructor at Renaissance Academy, says she voted yes on the measure. She says it gives her an opportunity to advance in her teaching career without leaving the classroom. “Most people when they get promoted, they become a principal or superintendent but they are not teachers anymore,” she said. “So, I see this as a good way to advance without advancing out and accepting leadership roles in the school and being compensated for it.”

Teachers should not benefit from promotions “just because they put a lot of years in,” she said, because “you have to be doing more to get more compensation.

But like Wade, she calls it unjust for teachers to be mainly assessed based on student success.

“I don’t think that should be ,” she said. “Our students come to us on so many different levels and it’s not fair to say that if a student comes to me in the third-grade level, I’m supposed to bring them up to the 11th-grade level in a year. Even the best, most amazing teachers with three students in a class couldn’t do that.”

Reforms to the teachers’ contracts will not take effect until next school year, but union teachers will receive a 2 percent raise and a $1,500 bonus check on Dec. 10, Aldine says.

Meanwhile, the city administrators’ union –The Baltimore City Public School Administrators and Supervisors Association – is negotiating a new contract for administrators within the school system.