The new year may be a done deal as far as flipping the calendar goes, but the countdown to the July 1 start of the Harford County government's budget year is once again accompanied by a fanfare all its own, courtesy of the leadership of the local teachers union and other school funding advocates.
Speaking earlier this week at a regular session of the Joppa-Joppatowne Community Council Monday, Ryan Burbey, president of the Harford County Education Association, outlined the teachers union's push this year for increased county funding for the school system with a priority to giving teachers raises. Burbey made a similar pitch the following night at the Harford County Council's legislative session.
Stakes are high in the school budget process this time of year, as the Harford Board of Education moves toward passage of its next operating budget and transmits it to the county executive and county council for approval of the county's share of funding.
The $442.9 million operating budget Superintendent Robert Tomback has proposed for the 2014 fiscal year requests a $15.1 million increase and will rely on the county for most of the additional money. The additional funding includes some money for salary increases for teachers and the school system's other employees, more than 5,200 in all, with the raises subject to union negotiations which are taking place.
Meanwhile, the public review process of the budget at the school board level continues next week. The board is scheduled to hold more hearings on the budget at 6 p.m. Monday, Jan. 14, and 6 p.m. Wednesday, Jan. 16, at school system headquarters in the A.A. Roberty Building at 102 Hickory Ave. in Bel Air. The board, whose previous hearings on the budget have been sparsely attended, will likely take a final vote on the budget in early February.
During the Joppa Community Council's meeting Monday at the Sheriff's Office Southern Precinct, both Burbey and school board member Robert Frisch talked about the new school budget with the community council members and about a dozen other people who attended.
Burbey's presentation started by urging that community members turn out at 6 p.m. Jan. 28 at Aberdeen High School for a budget planning session organized by Harford County Executive David R. Craig.
"We're trying to organize communities to come out and support the idea that schools are your priority," Burbey said.
To that end, he encouraged people to turn out in support of a $15.1 million requested increase in the school system operating budget, which Burbey noted includes increases of $6.3 million to cover staff raises and another $6.6 million to cover increased costs associated with providing school system staff with medical and other benefits. The balance of the proposed $15.1 million increase requested, $2.2 million, would cover a range of increased costs associated with operating the school system.
Burbey said the raises proposed for teachers and staff would be the first substantial raises since a salary freeze went into effect three years ago, though teachers were given a 1 percent raise in this fiscal year.
He went on to say teacher salaries in Harford County have not kept pace with those in surrounding jurisdictions, noting the starting salary for a first-year teacher is $41,000 in Harford County, which he said is third from the bottom among Maryland's 24 public school systems.
"It can't go on at the rate it has," he said of Harford County's public school teacher salary structure.
Though teachers received a substantial round of salary increases prior to the salary freeze that coincided with the economic downturn, Harford County has not kept pace with other jurisdictions in Maryland when it comes to maintaining any gains made in teacher pay ranking in the state since then, Burbey said.
This sentiment echoed comments made in December when the pay increases were proposed by Superintendent Robert Tomback. At the time he said: "We know we've fallen behind from our neighboring counties in Baltimore and Cecil."
Burbey reiterated the oft-stated argument that teachers from Harford County end up leaving the local school system once they have a few years of experience for higher pay in neighboring counties. This, however, hasn't been supported by the school system's annual report on teacher retention. In 2012, the teacher retention rate for Harford County Public Schools for the previous academic year was 93.7 percent, among the highest in the Baltimore metropolitan area. Also, 34.8 percent of the 210 teachers who left during that period were retirees.
The teachers union president also outlined why he believes teacher salaries and generally funding for the school can be increased without raising taxes in Harford County.
"I don't think it's necessary to increase taxes to better fund schools," he said.
He went on to say last year the county government allocation for public works "pay go" projects totaled $39 million. Though once allocated for construction, so called "pay go" money cannot be allocated for general operating expenses like salaries, but if that money is allocated for the school system rather than construction, it can be spent in the school system's general fund budget.Differing views
The issue of capital projects, specifically school construction, is one where Burbey and school board member Frisch had differing views.