Concerned about their stagnant salaries and what some said is a lack of respect shown them by the community, about 75 Harford County teachers and supporters rallied for their cause during a school budget hearing in Bel Air Tuesday evening.
Most of the teachers, many sporting bright red T-shirts with the words "time" and "respect," sat along one side of the Bel Air High School auditorium. They rose to their feet and applauded when someone from their ranks spoke.
Lamenting "how undervalued we are," Brenda Haupt, who was speaking on behalf of the English Department at Fallston High School, said teachers need more time to do their jobs, more respect from the community and more money to feed themselves and their families.
Most of the dozen speakers at the hearing pointed out Harford teachers haven't received cost of living raises in three years and no step raises for two. As a result, more than one speaker noted, a fourth year teacher is still earning the salary they earned as a first year teacher.
Several speakers said they can't make ends meet without working one or two part-time jobs. At least two speakers said younger teachers with families would qualify for food assistance under federal income guidelines, including the Free and Reduced Meals, or FARMS, program available in school cafeterias to students from low-income families.
Brian Reinhart, a 14-year-teacher who teaches English at Patterson Mill High School, said he has to work part-time to support his family, as do many of his colleagues, and hasn't been able to make repairs to his house or other purchases that would contribute to the local economy.
"Please invest in us," he said. "We invest in this community."
Randy Cerveny, the president of the local teachers union, warned that Harford County is going to face a critical teacher shortage if it doesn't do something about salaries.
Last spring, the union successfully negotiated with the school board both a cost of living increase and funding for two years of step raises, the latter that are paid to teachers as they increase their years of service.
The deal fell apart, however, when Harford County Executive David R. Craig cut the funding needed for the raises from the amount of money the county gives the school system. The teachers and the school system remain in arbitration over this year's contract, at a time when they should be negotiating next year's.
Perhaps bowing to financial realities, Cerveny said the first goal for the teachers in their next contract is to secure funding for step raises in next year's budget.
"Please pledge your unwavering support to provide the funds for salaries Harford County teachers have earned and deserved," he said.
The purpose of Tuesday's hearing was for School Superintendent Robert Tomback and his staff to receive public input at the start of his annual budget formulation process.
Tomback listened attentively, without commenting, to the 12 people who spoke as he sat in the front of the auditorium flanked by his top fiscal advisor, Jim Jewell; one of his deputies, Joe Licata; and his chief spokesperson, Teri Kranefeld.
In all, about 100 people attended the hearing that lasted about an hour, including Board of Education President Leonard Wheeler and board members Alysson Krchnavy and James Thornton.
For Tomback and the board, raising teacher salaries is not so much a question of justification as it is where to get the money?
Though a couple of speakers suggested cutting administrative staff and expenses like trips to attend seminars, the reality is those costs are a relatively small portion of a half-billion dollar operating budget. The millions required for just a one percent cost of living increase, or a one-step increment raise, invariably has to come from the county government, which has been unwilling or financially unable to provide the money.
There were no representatives from the county administration or from the Harford County Council observed in the audience at Tuesday's hearing.
Other than the teacher salary issue, two parents of Homestead-Wakefield Elementary School students talked about dangerous conditions on the playground and other safety issues with the Bel Air school, which had been expected to get a major renovation that has been put off while the school board studies future budget priorities.
Both speakers urged Tomback to spend the money needed to make the playground safe, regardless of what is done with the rest of the school.