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Teachers take over Harford council meeting, plead for help

BY BRYNA ZUMER, bzumer@theaegis.com

12:47 PM EDT, May 31, 2012

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Harford County teachers took their protest over lack of raises and other contract issues to the county council meeting Tuesday night, packing the chamber in Bel Air as the council got ready to vote on the 2013 county budget.

Before the meeting, dozens of teachers and their supporters shouted and held signs in front of the council building on 212 S. Bond St. Once Tuesday's session started, teachers filled in almost all the chairs in the chamber and at least a dozen more waited outside.

Protests were also staged earlier that day at Bel Air High School and Friday at Ring Factory Elementary School.

Harford County Executive David Craig had tried to give a $1,250 bonus to all county and school employees this year. The teachers' first payment – one half or $625 – was tied up in negotiations with the teachers' union and the second half never materialized after Craig said the money that would have funded the bonuses was needed to fund the teacher pension cost shift coming from the state.

Ryan Burbey, a frequent teachers' advocate at government meetings and a teacher at Aberdeen Middle School, questioned the $5.5 million teacher pension shift from the state to the county that Craig had cited in canceling the second $625 installment of the bonus.

Burbey said there is "no way" the cost is that high, adding it might only be $1.8 million.

"It's shameful to cloud these issues in false facts," Burbey said. "Teachers are put in the middle of this political manipulation."

Craig responded the next day, lamenting in a statement he wishes teachers would have fought the teacher pension shift long before now.

"I share your frustration, and I truly wish that more teachers and public employee unions had been vocal in their opposition to the Governor's plan to shift teacher pension costs to county governments when the issue was being debated in Annapolis," Craig wrote in the e-mailed statement.

Burbey also blasted the budget and said many teachers have never gotten a step increase.

"Every single member of this council holds responsibility for this budget and that is shameful," he said. "Fifteen percent of the county is children. Did they get 15 percent of the budget? The answer is no."

He said instead of funding salaries, the county is instead "building trash stations that nobody wants," in reference to the waste transfer facility the county executive wants to build in Joppa.

Burbey also blasted the council for not letting all the protesters into the meeting room.

He said a sign outside states that 280 people are allowed in the council chamber, but teachers were instead left standing in the "stuffy" antechamber or outside the building.

"I think this council needs a lesson in math," he said. "We were denied access to our government tonight and that is shameful. That is absolutely shameful."

Council President Billy Boniface took issue with that, telling Burbey he took "great offense" at his accusations about the two deputies assigned to provide security at council meetings.

He said they take their responsibility to provide safety to the council and the public "very seriously," and for Burbey to insinuate otherwise is "downright disgraceful."

"They are keeping it in compliance with the fire code," Boniface said. "They have done a tremendous job for us."

'Change the course'

William Smith pleaded with the council members to do what they could to change the relationship between the county executive and the board of education.

He said the two entities are "on a collision course."

He also noted Maryland is rated top in the country for education, and that as a taxpayer he appreciates the council's "hard work and thriftiness."

The audience loudly applauded the comments of Smith and the other speakers, often giving them a standing ovation.

"We get good bang for the buck here," Smith said about education in Maryland, before adding that the relationship between Superintendent Robert Tomback and Craig is "less than cordial," while the relationship with educators is "almost vengeful" at this point.

He said once in a while a person or a group of people can "change the course of humankind," and he thinks the council can do that.

"If we don't change the course, the Harford County educational system that you know is not going to be much longer," he said.

Randy Cerveny, president of Harford County Education Association, the teachers' union, said there is a lack of cooperation among the school system, the county council and the county executive.

"Tonight there's been a lot of blame cast," Cerveny said. "It's passing the buck, and that's what's happening here."

"Many are working one, if not two, additional jobs," he said. "Many of these teachers you probably won't see again because they will no longer be in our county."

"There needs to be a meeting of the minds in this county so this can be resolved," he said, getting a loud standing ovation.

Praise for teachers

Several council members used the teachers' presence as a general opportunity to thank educators, which did not seem to go over too well with the protesters.

Councilman Joe Woods urged graduating seniors to be careful and safe while preparing for graduation parties.

To teachers, he said: "Thanks for preparing them and getting them ready to move on," which drew a grudging "you're welcome" from the audience.

Councilman Jim McMahan said he is the son of a teacher.

"I wouldn't be here today if I didn't have the education provided me by Harford County Public Schools," he said, adding that his mother was thankful every time she got a raise.

To that, some in the audience yelled, "How about one now?" or said they have not gotten a raise in three years.

Councilman Dion Guthrie, meanwhile, got applause from the teachers after saying he does not think they should be expected to "cough up money" from their salaries to pay for the pension shift, in reference to the bonuses that were cut.

"Somebody needs to be living in lala land to think that $5.5 million [cost for the pension shift in 2013] won't be coming out of their bonus," Guthrie said.

He said next year, the difficulties will be doubled and the county should "start thinking a little more about the employees in the county and a little less about bricks and mortar."

"The difficulty keeps going and I don't know where we go from there unless we get someone that's more creative," he said.

'I don't know how to fix it'

Councilwoman Mary Ann Lisanti also said she does not know what to do.

"I look at all of you, I hear you. I really do," she said, explaining she has met with the board of education.

"The bottom line is, I don't know how to fix it," she said. "If we write a check, there's no guarantee it will go to your salaries."

Lisanti emphasized that the school system's budget negotiations need to be congruent with the budget process.

"I think we still have a long way to go so we don't find ourselves in the same situation every year: a war on public employees," she said. "I really am frustrated, like all of you, that this year it's the teachers, last year it was the deputies.

"At the end of the day we're all public employees," Lisanti said. "Somehow and some way, we're going to have to put all these swords down and work together."

County executive responds

In his statement, Craig said he has no choice but to fund the pensions.

"Money that could have been earmarked down the road by the school system for permanent raises or step increases must now go to paying for the portion of teacher pensions that used to be funded by the State of Maryland," he wrote. "Nonetheless, this mandate cannot be ignored and must be paid for by the taxpayers of Harford County. The annual impact to Harford County will rise to approximately $10.3 million by FY 2016."

Craig rejected the possibility of the county using so-called "offsets" attached with the pension shift, calling them "merely estimates" that are mostly "optimistic, dubious and unreliable."

"To balance a budget based on these at this late date would be fiscally irresponsible, and would potentially undo years of prudent financial management, which have resulted in Harford County achieving the AAA bond rating that saves taxpayers millions of dollars annually," he continued.

He also rejected the possibility of paying the second half of the bonuses with county surplus money.

"Once funds that have been reserved or are restricted, or that have been allocated for necessary capital improvements are accounted for, however, there would not be sufficient funds left in reserve to meet the teacher pension obligation after granting the bonus," he said.

"Local governments did not create the fiscal problems for this state; however, in addition to balancing our own budgets, it's now become common practice in Maryland that counties have the responsibility of balancing the state budget as well," he wrote. "The state has failed to lead, so it is now my responsibility to do so on this issue."