A teachers march on the Harford County Council Tuesday evening was the latest part of a high profile push on the part of educators to get the county to fully fund the budget request made by the Harford County public school system.
Organizer Ryan Burbey, president of the Harford teachers' union, said Monday he anticipated hundreds of teachers would participate, though the rally featured up to about 150 people at its height. It was mostly limited to the sidewalks around the Council Chambers, and most marchers did not stay for the council meeting that evening.
The marchers met at Bel Air Elementary School and marched down Main Street before gathering around the council building on Bond Street.
They chanted "Save our schools," and waved to passing cars on Route 22 and Bond Street, many of whom honked.
Although lobbying for higher salaries for teachers is "certainly part of it," Burbey said his goal is to fund the school system in general. He has frequently attended public meetings in recent months warning council members and others that he believes the school system to be in dire straits
"It has become apparent that the community does not realize what a dire need there is for schools to get funding," he said, noting that "literally every program is at risk" and teachers continue to leave Harford.
For the year that begins July 1, the school system has proposed spending $481.3 million on general operations (everything aside from construction), which constitutes a 6.3 percent increase over the $452.8 million allocated by county, state and other sources for the county's schools for the current fiscal year.
Of the total, the school system is requesting $253.3 million from the Harford County government, an increase of 12.6 percent over the $221.3 million the county allocated for schools during the current fiscal year.
With the county budget process set to unfold in the coming weeks, "obviously we have timed it that way because we want something to happen before it is too late," Burbey said of the protest effort.
"The purpose for the march is to raise community awareness, raise awareness for the county council," he said. "It's an educating experience so that everyone in the county, the council, the county executive can see how desperate the situation is becoming."
"Every year the school board has asked for more money and every year they don't get it," he said.
With teachers working at what Burbey characterized as "pre-2006 wages," a salary increase "obviously is a motivator," he said.
"It's not just the fact that you are losing hundreds of teachers, it's that the entire system is slowly and arduously grinding to a halt," he said.
Though Burbey frequently makes statements about teachers leaving the county public school system, the retention rate has been well in excess of 90 percent for years. In December, the school system reported its most recently calculated teacher retention rate is 92.6 percent, fourth best in Maryland behind Frederick (95 percent), Cecil, (93.5 percent) and Baltimore counties, (93.1 percent). The school system employs about 2,900 teachers; with a 92.6 retention rate, that translates into a churn of about 214 teachers.
Burbey has been posting fliers and spreading the word about the march. The Harford County Education Association, the teachers union, is offering buses from Edgewood and Aberdeen High schools for participants who may have limited transportation, he said.
He said he believes the march is a first for county educators.
"To my knowledge, we have never done that and I think that is a commentary on the severity of the situation," he said.
Although Burbey is a regular speaker at county council meetings, he said a critical mass might make more of an impression.
"Sometimes when it's just one person talking, folks think it's just some kind of agenda that I am pushing," he said. "I just think the citizens of Harford County just deserve to have their schools funded at a level that allows them to grow."
Burbey was joined by three other teachers during the evening in reminding council members to support teachers.
Havre de Grace Councilman David Glenn also spoke in support of teachers.
The council members said in their closing remarks that they appreciated teachers' work, and Councilman Dick Slutzky gave a detailed explanation of how the education budget process works and why "fully funding" the requested board of education budget would be extremely complicated.
Teachers like George Curry told the council that Harford would end up losing programs and rolling back magnet programs if the budget was not fully funded.