Harford County teachers' salaries are lagging behind their counterparts' in neighboring counties, and the gap widens each year, the result of teachers not receiving their salary steps for four of the past five years, according to figures the head of the county's teachers' union presented to the board of education earlier this week.

"This is a considerable loss to our individual teachers, and really our community," Ryan Burbey, president of the Harford County Education Association, told board members during a presentation he gave during Monday's board meeting in Bel Air.

Burbey talked about the difference between teacher salaries in Cecil and Harford counties. During the July 29 board meeting, he spoke about the gap between Baltimore and Harford County teacher pay.

"I know many of my colleagues have cut back on their discretionary spending just to survive," he said. The HCEA represents about 3,200 classroom teachers and guidance counselors in the county public schools for collective bargaining purposes, of whom about 2,000 are actual members of the union.

Burbey presented statewide rankings which showed Harford teachers' salaries "were near the bottom" among Maryland's 24 public school districts.

First-year teachers with a bachelor's degree were ranked 18th; those with master's degrees ranked 20th, as well as those with a master's plus 30 credits toward another degree or advanced certifications in their respective disciplines.

The rankings were even worse for experienced teachers, according to Burbey's data.

Ten-year teachers with bachelor's degrees were at No. 22, and teachers with a master's, or a master's plus 30 credits were last, at No. 24.

Burbey's comparisons among the three counties took into account how teachers had missed four salary steps over the past five years; Harford County teachers did receive a step for the 2012-2013 school year.

School officials announced in early 2013 that the board and teachers' union reached a tentative agreement in March regarding their contract for the 2013-2014 school year, which would include a 1 percent cost of living adjustment and a step increase for eligible teachers.

Burbey said via e-mail Thursday that the union has "ratified the majority of the agreement but are in dispute about the compensation still."

The Board of Education's budget request for 2013-14 included about $7 million for teacher salary increases, but they had to be canceled, part of a series of cost-saving measures such as position cuts, bus route consolidations and the implementation of student activity and sports fees approved by the board in June to reconcile its budget.

"While the Board is aware that we have fallen behind our neighboring counties with respect to our teacher's salary schedule, we continue to offer very competitive healthcare and other employment benefits," school board President Nancy Reynolds said in an e-mailed statement Thursday.  "As a Board, we are committed to working with all involved to address those discrepancies in the near future."

Salary steps are salary increases provided to teachers as they gain years of experience and advanced degrees.

Burbey told board members a first-year teacher with a bachelor's degree makes $41,583 in Harford County, compared to $43,000 in Baltimore County and $43,662 in Cecil.

The teachers' union head included the lack of four years of step increases as he made his comparisons.

Burbey said Wednesday he had taken his salary data from the three school systems' websites.

The statewide rankings were drawn from the database of the Maryland State Educators Association, the state's teachers' union.

"Once we get off scale, all bets are off there," Burbey said. "It's just not even close."

"We're creating an environment where our school system pays to train young teachers, gives them the experience and then they can go to other school systems and make more money," he said Wednesday.

His charts showed a five-year veteran teacher in Harford, with a bachelor's, making two-year pay, $42,829, versus $45,538 for the same years of experience in Baltimore County and $47,442 a year in Cecil, a gap of $4,613 between Cecil and Harford salaries.

The gap between five-year Harford and Cecil teachers with master's degrees was slightly narrower at $4,530, according to Burbey's data; a Harford teacher made $45,437, compared with $49,967 for a Cecil teacher with the same years of experience and education.

A teacher in Baltimore County at that level would make $47,061 a year, according to the chart.

Ten-year teachers in Harford with master's degrees would be at sixth-year pay, according to Burbey's findings, making $51,139, versus $55,033 in Baltimore and $57,522 in Cecil.

"If we just get back on track and stay on track, you don't have a recruitment problem, you don't have a retention problem, you don't have a morale problem, but being four steps behind, it is a huge gap," he said during the July 29 board meeting. "There is a huge difference here."

Burbey said teachers are required to earn a master's degree during their careers, and the school system gives teachers a partial tuition reimbursement as they obtain credits.

Teachers can receive up to $300 "per semester hour of credit," for graduate-degree courses, and up to $75 per semester hour for undergraduate courses "when applicable toward obtaining or renewing a professional certificate," according to a copy of the 2012-2013 contract between the teachers union and the school board.

"No professionally certificated employee will be reimbursed for more than twelve (12) semester hours of credit per fiscal year," according to the contract.

Burbey said Wednesday that the gap in teacher pay is affecting retention, as teachers leave for districts with higher salaries, which can affect the quality of schools, and quality of life in Harford County as families often choose where they will live based on the school district.