Harford council defends 2014 budget, despite impact on schools

At their legislative session Tuesday, Harford County Council members defended their actions on the 2014 budget which leave the county school system with a considerably smaller increase in its county funding allotment than school officials requested – the net impact of which is likely to be no raises for teachers and other school employees.

After one of his fellow council members suggested funding the teachers' negotiated raises would have resulted in a tax increase, Councilman Jim McMahan noted that Harford County Education Association President Ryan Burbey was in the audience.

"I ask Mr. Burbey tonight, if he could get the same group of teachers that he had in here last week to stand out on the sidewalks with signs reading 'please raise our taxes,' and we might be able to get enough support throughout the county that the county council could approve that," McMahan said.

In March, school officials requested a $22 million increase from the county, of which about $7.7 million would fund 1 percent cost of living and other longevity raises for about 5,400 school employees. County Executive David Craig proposed an increase of less than $2 million, and the council concurred in its final passage of the budget on May 28.

The raise plan was the result of negotiations between the Harford County Education Association, which represents teachers, and the Board of Education earlier this year, before the county budget process got started in mid-April. Similar deals were made between the school board and other employee unions.

Referring to an Aegis article written on the eve of the council's final budget vote, which noted the council could still fund the full $7.7 million needed for the raises by making reductions elsewhere in the budget, Councilman Dion Guthrie noted that in order to have done this, valuable programs and departments would have been cut, which Guthrie said wouldn't have been possible.

"The point is that it's a lot of money, and there's no way the county council can come up with $19 million to restore what the county executive couldn't find," Guthrie said. "We couldn't find it either."

Councilwoman Mary Ann Lisanti lamented that raises would not be included and once again raised the need for a better process for negotiating with the county's teachers.

"The whole idea that our teachers are in a contract negotiation during the budget process and then we give a sum of money to a group that's negotiating," Lisanti said. "That's like giving the answers to the test. That doesn't make sense to me."

"I surely would like to see a process redesigned, where the teachers and the board of education negotiate a fair contract and they bring that request to the county executive and ask him or her to fund it, and this council to do the same," Lisanti added, noting that it would be tough, but she would continue her efforts.

As has been his custom during budget discussions, Burbey spoke during the public comment session and responded to the council.

"I find it very sad that the continuous attack on our public servants goes on," Burbey said. "To assert that there's nothing you can do in a budget where you had almost 200 amendments seems quite disingenuous to me."

Burbey noted that the bills earlier during Tuesday's council meeting dealing with waste management included increases for fuel costs and CPI over time, but that the education budget did not. He also noted how the county now spends a lesser percentage of the budget on education each year.

"While every member of this council touts their support for teachers and their support for education, it isn't followed through," Burbey said. "It's got to be followed through. Your teachers can't shoulder this burden any longer. They simply can't. I wish we could."

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