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Harford school system settles with teachers, other employees

Unemployment and LayoffsBudgets and BudgetingLocal GovernmentSchools

Harford County's public school system announced Monday that it has reached a tentative contract agreement with its largest union representing teachers, who are to get raises funded by school budget cuts that will eliminate 72 positions.

The agreement covers the school year that ends this week and next school year and will provide teachers, guidance counselors and other members in the bargaining unit a 1 percent cost of living raise next school year, plus a step increment raise for those who are eligible and a longevity increment for others.

In addition, members of four other school system employee unions, representing in excess of 2,000 employees, will receive similar pay increases, the school system said.

The agreement was announced by the school system shortly before 3 p.m. Monday, just a few hours before teachers were set to attend the Harford County Board of Education's business meeting in Bel Air, where final action was expected to be taken on the 2012-13 school system budget.

"The Board of Education of Harford County and the Harford County Education Association (HCEA), which represents approximately 3,200 Harford County Public Schools employees, including teachers, guidance counselors, psychologists, media specialists, occupational therapists, physical therapists and speech and hearing clinicians, have reached a tentative agreement for the FY12 (2011-12) and FY13 (2012-13) school years," a news release from the school system read.

"A tentative agreement for FY13 was signed by representatives of the school system and HCEA. The one-year tentative contract between the two organizations encompasses the 2012-13 school year, which will begin July 1, 2012, and end June 30, 2013," the release continued.

The details of the agreement, including the 1 percent cost of living raise for all employees and the step increment and longevity increment for those eligible, was being "shared" with members of the school board and with members of the union, according to the school system. Both the board and the union must approve the final terms.

Advocacy lauded by union head

In a press release sent Monday afternoon, HCEA President Randy Cerveny wrote: "Make no mistake: this agreement came about because of the involvement and advocacy of the teachers of Harford County. They refused to remain silent in the face of threats to the quality of education for Harford County students and stood up for their right to be compensated as professionals."

Cerveny said he expected the school board to adopt a budget during Monday's scheduled meeting that includes the negotiated increases.

"HCEA members will vote on ratification of the tentative agreement in their schools on Tuesday and Wednesday," the teachers release stated.

The school system's press release said HCEA also tentatively agreed to a memorandum of understanding, or MOU, that resolves the outstanding 2011-12 collective bargaining issues. The MOU provides for a bonus day for the 2011-12 school year, therefore, the last day for teachers will be Wednesday, June 13, not Thursday, as had originally been stipulated by the school system.

For the past two weeks, teachers have been picketing almost daily outside selected schools to express their displeasure over having to work on June 14 and over the lack of resolution of their contracts. No Harford school employees have received raises since the 2009-10 school year, and the superintendent had proposed a 2 percent reduction in 2010-11 that was avoided only after county officials approved additional funding for the school budget.

County executive responds

In a statement issued shortly before 5 p.m. Monday, Harford County Executive David Craig applauded the settlement, but added words of caution.

"The proposed 1 percent pay raise, plus step and longevity pay will cost the Board of Education approximately $10 million," Craig said. "Although our teachers undoubtedly deserve a fair pay raise, this proposal also comes with a cost — the loss of both administrative and teaching positions."

Craig, who has been the focus of some of the teachers' criticism, made it clear that he had no involvement in the negotiating process, one over which he noted he has no legal authority.

He noted that the raise for school employees is solely funded by the board's fiscal year 2013 budget and "no additional funding was needed from the taxpayers of Harford County to support this negotiated pay raise for teachers and staff."

"I felt confident throughout this budget process that the Board of Education would find the money within their allotted budget to provide for this pay raise for eligible teachers and staff," he continued, also pointing out that as county executive, he has "consistently funded the Board of Education at unprecedented levels above the [state required] maintenance of effort."

The county executive said he hopes the board and HCEA "can move forward in a collaborative manner and put this issue behind them for the betterment of the education of our children and grandchildren."

Two-year dispute

Though school officials approved 3 percent raises and two step raises for teachers and other school employees for the current school year, county government officials rejected extra funding sought to fund the package. That left the school system and its unions to renegotiate the current year's contract and while other unions did, the teachers took their dispute to a special state labor relations board created by the legislature to specifically resolve contract disputes between teachers and local school systems.

The labor board has since ruled Harford school officials had acted in bad faith, but county officials made it clear to school officials that they believed the state board has no power to order the county to fund an agreement that would compel them to also raises taxes. As a result, the dispute over the 2011-12 contract appeared to have come to an impasse prior to Monday's settlement announcement.

As for the deal made to fund the 1 percent-plus raises for 2012-13, school officials acknowledged the county executive and county council cut most of the system's requested budgetary increases this year; however, the school system will fund the deal anyway, the press release said.

"Despite the lack of funding for a wage increase from [county] fiscal authorities, the board agreed to fund the increases through significant reductions in staffing and other programmatic areas throughout the budget to include professional development, overtime, meetings and conferences and equipment," the release states.

When the county council enacted the 2012-13 budget on May 29, several council members warned teachers that if the school system were to fund raises from its final budgetary allotment from the county, some teaching positions were likely to be cut.

"The Board is pleased to provide our employees with an increase in salary as they are the heart of this organization and so deserving," School Board President Leonard D. Wheeler said in the release. "Working with a budget shortfall this year, it was imperative that we carefully analyzed the budget to make strategic and thoughtful reductions in order to provide a salary increase for our employees. However, with approximately 85 percent of our budget dedicated to people, it is impossible to make cuts without realizing an impact on the classroom."

As a result of the FY13 board agreement, members of the four other bargaining units: Harford County Educational Services Council; the Association of Public School Administrators and Supervisors of Harford County; the Association of Harford County Administrative, Technical and Supervisory Professionals; and the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees will also receive the step increase, 1 percent COLA and longevity increment for eligible employees, the school system said.

Negotiations were not enough to stop teachers from picketing outside of the A. A. Roberty building before and during Monday night's Board of Education meeting.

About 50 to 60 teachers with signs stood outside with more in the lobby because the board room was filled to capacity. A sign outside the doors alerted visitors that only 175 people were allowed in the board room at a time.

Teachers wore red stickers that read "Save our schools" and talked among each other as some watched the meeting from monitors.

Harford Technical High School para-educator Becky Mercer was one school employee to picket outside before the meeting.

"It still wasn't enough," she said regarding that day's negotiations. "We still turned out."

Mercer commented that as a para-educator, which she has been for three years, she still doesn't earn a salary comparable to a teacher's.

As many teachers as the room allowed filed in after the recognitions portion of the meeting, with 10 or 15 standing in the back once the seats were filled again.

Many teachers, as well as Cerveny, spoke during the public comment portion, and all thanked the board for its negotiations with HCEA, and encouraged them to continue their support.

"First, thank you for finally giving your teachers the salary step they deserve this year," Ryan Burbey said. "I know while it isn't what we all wanted, it means a lot and we appreciate your commitment."

Moving forward, Burbey continued, "never again can your employees' wages be used as a budgetary pawn to move around and shuffle about."

The teacher commented that although the negotiated increases are a step in the right direction, Harford school employees are still behind salary-wise.

"We have to work together, we have to rally the community," Burbey said. "The level of funding in Harford County is abysmal."

Cerveny also thanked the board for going back to the negotiating table for salary increases.

"I know our differences overall aren't great when it comes to public education," Cerveny said. "Teachers will be able to do a little bit more personally with this commitment."

The HCEA added that hopefully with this action teachers in the county won't want to find work in other jurisdictions.

"This is not over yet," Cerveny said, clarifying the statement wasn't a threat, but rather an acknowledgment that prioritizing public education isn't over and done with. "We need commitment from all of us working together to fund education to the level it needs to be."

North Harford Middle School teacher George Curry thanked the board for its efforts "in this difficult task."

Along with that gratitude, however, Curry said there is "quite a bit of nervousness that goes with that."

Curry's family was affected by the tornado that ripped through Fallston almost two weeks ago, he said, and averting tragedy "makes you pause and take account of the things in your life."

The teacher noted that he has seen the relationship between the board and teachers go from "strained" to almost "litigious."

"Time heals," Curry said. "I sincerely hope, as many of us do, that the actions today are a step in healing the wounds."

Amy Childs, who held her young son in her arms while speaking to the board, said her husband lost his business "when the economy turned down and we're living on my salary."

Because of the salary freezes, Childs continued, "I can't afford to start him [her son] in pre-school."

She went on to say, "I appreciate with my whole heart the step that you all have made today," referring to the board, "but 1 percent [increase] is $20 that doesn't fill my gas tank to go to work."

Later in the meeting, the board approved amendments to its fiscal year 2013 budget that would balance the county funding level, revised negotiated wages and the unrestricted budget of $427,768,507.

Jim Jewell, assistant superintendent of business services, explained to the board that the adjustments were a result of $5 million in shifted teacher pension costs that HCPS will absorb and revised revenue figures.

Some adjustments that will be made to the budget are the elimination of 72 positions, and a reduction of more than $6 million in operating and salary expenditures in the board's unrestricted budget.

Board member Bob Frisch expressed concerns with eliminating so many positions.

While he understood that to come up with the compensation package there needed to be budget adjustments, Frisch said, "The reality is a significant portion is tied to employee salaries and benefits."

Frisch added that the problem with eliminating classroom positions is that those jobs "are likely [to] never return" and a probable result would be an increase in class sizes.

He then made a motion to eliminate the full-time positions of classroom mentors and replace them with contractual positions at an annual salary of no more than $40,000 each.

Superintendent Robert Tomback and another school system employee pointed out that the school system is required to have mentors for teachers in their first three years of teaching and there could be legal issues with HCEA.

Board member Alysson Krchnavy commented that as a long-term substitute she personally benefited from a mentor teacher and their services were "invaluable."

Fellow board member James Thornton was also wary of any legal issues that could come out of turning the full-time positions into contractual.

Ultimately, Frisch's motion was defeated and the budget amendments, including elimination of positions, were part of the package.

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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