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Havre de Grace council president, teachers union head clash over school closing comments

Ryan Burbey, President of the Harford County Education Association came to the Havre de Grace City Council meeting Tuesday night intending to apologize over statements he made regarding school funding at a recent Harford County Council meeting and the possibility that some schools, including in Havre de Grace, might one day have to close.

Instead, he got a stinging rebuke from City Council President Randy Craig.

"I wanted to come this evening, folks, to first apologize for the hubbub that my comments at the Harford County Council meeting caused for some of you via e-mail regarding the schools of Havre de Grace," Burbey said during the meeting's public comment portion.

"To clarify, under no situation did I intend to insinuate that Havre de Grace schools would or should be closed. What I did intend to present to you all is a very dire budget situation which the school system faces."

Craig was not in a forgiving mood, though.

"Mr. Burbey, I'm not buying it. I'm not buying it at all," Craig said, his voice slightly raised. "You represent a special interest, and talk about education funding. You talk about closing a school, that school closures can happen. The only person talking about school closures from I've seen is you and the association that you represent. No one else."

"You stand here and you say, you make the case that you're not for that, you don't want that, but then you present facts like it's more efficient to do it in another way. That's completely disingenuous," Craig continued. "It makes no sense. The entire argument doesn't make sense."

Attacks motives

Craig went on to attack Burbey's motives as president of the education association, the union representing more than 3,000 public school teachers in Harford County.

"I don't know whether you fancy yourself as some sort of knights of labor organizer here representing a labor interest up against these big capitalists," Craig said. "You're representing teachers, professionals with master's degrees, not a coal miner coughing up black lung. And the capital that you're trying to get the money from is the average taxpayer and homeowner in this city, in this county."

"We love our teachers in this community. Many of them choose to live here. And I'm just saddened that your advocacy seems to be at a detriment to these very important public servants," Craig added. "It's very disappointing to me because I know they could use the money. And when a community like this is used as a pawn, in some sort of political game, I find it disgusting."

Burbey replied that he "certainly didn't come here to pick a fight, or to insult you with any comments."

"The real facts are that the funding for Harford County schools has been stagnant for many years," Burbey said. "Harford County is not just one of the wealthiest counties in the state of Maryland, it's one of the wealthiest counties in the country. In fact, as of 2011, it was the 42nd wealthiest county in the country."

Burbey added that as the county's wealth has gone up in recent years, state funding had gone down as poorer counties received more funding. He mentioned that other county governments, such as Carroll County were seeking to close some of their schools.

"You don't have to go very far to see this happening," Burbey said.

Craig, who is the son of Harford County Executive David Craig – a frequent target for criticism from teachers – interrupted Burbey, saying: "You don't have to go very far to see taxes that have gone up. They've gone down here. You don't have to go very far to see people that have been furloughed. That hasn't happened here."

'Camera hound'

As Burbey sought to continue his point, Craig said "Excuse me sir, the way it works in here is that you get three minutes. I know that you like to go from TV to TV."

"I'm trying to tell you that there are hard working teachers that need better, and I don't think you're giving it to them. And I think it's really disappointing to see a camera hound, a press hound, looking for himself, trying to make his organization for himself look better," Craig argued.

"You're not helping them, in my opinion. They need assistance, and trying to make an argument that you said there should be schools that are closed; that doesn't mean it has to happen, that doesn't mean it will happen," Craig continued. "Nobody's talking about that. "

"Mr Craig, all you have to do is look at the enrollment projections," Burbey replied. "If you extrapolate the enrollment projections out over time, you're down to just above 60 percent by 2019 here in Havre de Grace and across the northern tier."

"When a new superintendent is hired, hopefully there will be somebody from Harford County who wants to preserve the integrity of the community and the schools," Burbey continued. "However, there is a risk, and there always is a risk whenever enrollment drops, for school closures. When I was a child, my school was closed. I mean, these are risks."

Burbey defended his actions and statements, and stressed that he had the best of intentions.

"I'm sorry that you've characterized me the way you have and have the opinion of me that you do," Burbey said. "I hope over time that will change. But the truth of the matter is Havre de Grace lacks in programming because it lacks in funding. It's as simple as that, and we truly, truly, truly need to increase the funding for schools."

"I'm not here to gather attention," Burbey continued. "I actually came here out of respect for your offices and understanding that some comments that I made were misinterpreted and misappropriated and perhaps misguided."

"The bottom line is I came out here to seek out support from you and to apologize to you. Not to hound the press, not to get the camera," Burbey added. "I've got a family at home I could be with. So, I appreciate your consternation and angst over the issue. I understand that these issues are troubling, but they are very troubling."

Craig didn't seem convinced, though.

"The allegation that's troubling is that there is someone that's supposedly representing teachers that's the only person I've heard saying this [a school closing] is a possibility. That's what's troubling," Craig replied.

'Red flag'

Councilman Joe Smith hoped the rationality would prevail, and said that Burbey was shedding light on a serious issue.

"I think what you're suggesting is that [funding issues] could result [in school closures], and you're just sort of putting up a red flag and warning us, saying let's look into this," Smith said. "You can do all of the cheerleading that you want, and we do that very well in this city, but we also have to think rationally."

Smith added that as a teenager, his high school in Michigan had been closed and combined with a middle school because of funding issues He said Burbey's assertion that a school closing is possible in Havre de Grace was legitimate.

"I think we have to be careful about how we respond to somebody I think is trying to raise a legitimate point and give them the opportunity and respond in a respectful way," Smith said. "[School funding] is a serious problem, so we're got to seriously consider what the repercussions are."

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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