Despite all the public posturing over the past several years about teacher pay increases, Harford County Public Schools has one of the highest teacher retention rates in the state, according to a recently release report on teacher recruitment and retention.

But school officials continue to warn Harford's system faces challenges in recruiting and retaining teachers and other staff members as pay rates fall behind neighboring counties and the cost of benefits increases. And, the report notes, two of the counties with higher retention rates are on Harford's borders.

"Our competitive position and base pay has eroded as neighboring school systems have provided structure and step adjustments when we have not been able to do so," Jean Mantegna, assistant superintendent for human resources, told members of the Board of Education, as she and Howard Kutcher, senior manager of Human Resources, presented a report on recruitment and retention during the board's Dec. 16 meeting.

The report covers a 12-month period ending Sept. 30, 2013.

"Although HCPS offers a very generous and attractive benefits package, our base hiring rate for teachers is below that of our immediate neighbors, and [base pay is] $5,892 less than the highest base rate offered within the state at a school system less than a 30-minute drive from Bel Air," Mantegna continued.

She also noted that compensation for experienced teachers "has fallen sharply," with a 15-year Harford County teacher earning $4,500 less per year than his or her counterpart in Baltimore County and $7,900 less than in Cecil County.

Mantegna highlighted the state's Fair Share Act, passed by the General Assembly and signed into law by Gov. Martin O'Malley during the spring of 2013. School employees who are not members of a union but still have the benefits obtained by that union must pay a "fair share" fee, essentially union dues even though they are not union members. The Maryland State Teachers Association, the statewide union, has lobbied for years to get this requirement, known as agency shop.

"The potential for future employee fees associated with recent fair share legislation could result in reductions in the take-home pay of more than 50 percent of our system-wide workforce that are not presently dues-paying union members," Mantegna explained.

The school system currently has a 92.6 percent overall teacher retention rate, however, according to statistics presented by Mantegna. Harford employees approximately 2,900 classroom teachers.

That retention rate places Harford at fourth best in the state, after Frederick (95 percent), Cecil, (93.5 percent) and Baltimore County, (93.1 percent).

"Overall turnover has remained relatively flat, even in light of our declining competitiveness in salary," Mantegna explained.

She said retirements were the No. 1 reason for staff turnover; retirements accounted for almost 25 percent of all staff separations during the 12-month reporting period.

Harford teachers salaries have been flat the past several years. A 1 percent cost of living increase was granted in 2012, and in some years the school system did not fund either cost of living adjustments or step increment raises tied to longevity and professional performance, blaming the county government for not providing enough money for them.

Hiring

Harford County Public Schools also continues to hire for teaching and non-teaching positions, despite cuts in positions to reconcile the budget for the current fiscal year, Mantegna told board members.

School system officials cut 115 positions in the schools and central office, including 46 that were filled, as part of the budget reconciliation passed in June.

Mantegna said "all but three" of those 46 were hired back.

"Even though a number of vacant positions were removed from the budget this past year, HCPS hired 414 replacement staff members, roughly 25 percent higher than the same period in the previous year," Mantegna said.

Teacher hires were 6 percent lower than the previous year.

She said the school system handled 2,414 applications for teaching positions during the past year, or an average of 15 applications for each of the 164 positions filled.