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County and state teachers union presidents push to make education a priority in Harford

Interior PolicyPension and WelfareU.S. Department of Health and Human Services

The state's teachers are in "over their heads" and should be compensated at a higher level, says the Maryland State Education Association's president.

Betty Weller, the MSEA president, and Harford County Education Association President Ryan Burbey, both say that while the county, state and nation as a whole are facing economic challenges, education priorities shouldn't be placed on the back burner.

The state and Harford teachers unions leaders met last week in Bel Air with a reporter from The Aegis to discuss the state of education in Maryland and where their members stand on such issues as salaries, working conditions and professional standards and new school buildings.

With the new Common Core State Standards initiative, new teacher evaluations and professional development teachers are required to attend, Weller feels "our educators are under water."

"They are working their little hearts out to try to accomplish what they're being asked to do," she said.

Weller commented that teachers in other counties who have worked in their respective school systems for decades have said they are staying up late working "like a first year teacher trying to balance everything."

School construction

On the hot topic of building a new Havre de Grace High School, Burbey said spending millions to build a completely new school may not be "the best choice."

"You have two completely functional buildings," he said. "And you're going to bulldoze those for a new school?"

Burbey said HHS has a "great auditorium" and it doesn't seem logical to destroy it just to build another one.

"Why are you going to dismantle something you've already got?" he asked. "The auditorium is an asset, so why are you going to destroy an asset to build a baseball field?"

Other schools may be in more need of renovations, Burbey continued, such as the alternative education building called the Center for Educational Opportunity, Youth's Benefit Elementary School or William Paca/Old Post Road Elementary School.

When asked what he thought about comments at a recent Abingdon Community Council that William Paca/Old Post Road wasn't on the top of the school construction list because not many community members spoke up for the school, Burbey commented, "The squeaky wheel gets the grease."

The Havre de Grace's credit, he continued, "[they were] very organized and had a great campaign and has a hometown boy as a county executive. That can't hurt."

While there have been "significant improvements" to William Paca/Old Post Road, Burbey says it just can't compare to the other elementary schools in the county. There are a lot of schools in the same shape, however, and the issue comes down to who has the best case for a new school.

"We lose sight in these political decisions that we are making decisions on essentially the children's living conditions for most of their day," Burbey said.

Salary increases

With multiple protests from Harford's public school teachers over the lack of salary increases at the end of the last school year, some have seen the county's educators as the thorn in the government's side.

Since taking office as president of the Harford teachers union at the end of the summer, Burbey has had, what he calls, "very cordial" meeting with county officials.

"We're not always going to agree," he said. "And the teachers may have to protest again. But the county employees or Harford County Sheriff's Office employees might protest, too. You don't just have to say whatever the government says is OK."

Weller added that many counties have dealt with salary freezes, as did Harford for three years until the local teachers union finally worked out a settlement that led to a 1 percent cost of living raise and step raises.

While those educators understand that the nation is in tough economic times, Weller continued, "I wonder, how do you expect the economy to pick up again if employees don't make enough to spend? It's a catch-22."

What it comes down to, Weller said, is "happy teachers do a better job."

"If all they can think about is how they're going to pay rent, they're not focused on what they're doing and not doing the best job for the kids they're responsible for," she said."

Burbey gave an example of a teacher in Aberdeen that he has spoken to that works three jobs to pay her bills.

"And she's not the only one," he added.

State funding

As far as state funding for education, Weller believes if the nation doesn't go over the fiscal cliff, then "we may see the light at the end of the tunnel." This means funding for school construction, state aid under the Thornton law (distributing state aid to correct funding deficiencies between more and less affluent counties) and funding for the Geographic Cost of Education Index (GCI), she said.

Educators are optimistic for funding this upcoming fiscal year because, she continued, "it turns out the state structural deficit is less than [the government] thought it would be."

"State funding can get a lot better," Burbey added. "If the state doesn't step up, general funding will continue to go down."

Burbey said Harford County ranks 18th out of 24 in the state in terms of operational funding for public schools, but is sixth in income per capita.

"Funding has been stagnant," he said.

Burbey admitted that County Executive David Craig has provided funding that is "slightly more" than the required maintenance of effort dictated by state law, a point Craig has made repeatedly when his commitment to funding schools has been questioned.

"But if the effort is low to start with," Burbey said. "Maintaining a low level doesn't get you anywhere."

Teacher pension shift

The state is phasing the shift of teacher pension costs to the counties, Weller said, in such a way that it will as "harmless as possible for the first few years."

The total costs for teacher pensions will be put onto the counties by fiscal year 2016. This year Harford County is responsible for $5.5 million.

"Some counties are saying this is such a burden" Weller said. "The state has increased funding to education over the years, and what seems to have happened is that counties, instead of supplementing [funding], they have supplanted it."

Weller feels the pension shift is Annapolis' way of saying funding education and teacher pensions is not just its responsibility but everyone's.

In addition, she said, the state has no control over how much teachers are paid from county to county, which ultimately affects their pension costs.

Still, she added, "I doubt the mood over it [pensions] will not change."

Teachers are paying more in pension costs too, Burbey pointed out.

"Five percent goes to pension and 2 percent goes to the general fund," out of teacher salaries, he continued. "And Maryland's pension system isn't any great golden Cadillac of pension systems."

Looking toward the future

What Burbey hopes for in the long run is to have a community that stands by their kids and the education they receive.

"My hope is that folks will come out and tell the county executive, 'You know what? I want my kids to compete in a 21st century marketplace. I don't want them left behind because the schools were funded on the cheap,'" he said.

Weller believes education should also be made a priority at home.

"If they [parents] set the bar for students in their homes, I think the student will come to school with a more eager attitude to learn," she said. This, Weller added, can be done at no cost, except for parental time.

"Make children realize what possibilities there are if they have an education," she said. "Bring in books, resources that help them learn, or make a point to go to a library or sit down while they do their homework and encourage them."

Above all, Weller said, "I hope that people will remember that without teachers no other professions are possible."

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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