Howard County's public schools are considered among the best in the country and its teacher salaries are near the top in Maryland, but such attributes haven't kept the system and its teachers' union from butting heads in a continuing contract dispute.
In a county whose slogan is "Choose Civility," rhetoric between the Howard County Education Association and school system leadership has been tense during the standoff over raises and other issues that lasted much of the school year and is drifting now into the summer.
Superintendent Renee Foose has accused the union of "bamboozling teachers" into thinking they're getting a raw deal, while union president Paul Lemle has said Foose and the board don't value some of the best educators in the state. The debate has included a complaint about open meetings, organized protests at school board sessions and a "work-to-rule" action, or doing only the minimal duties required by their contract, which prompted Foose to accuse the union of "asking teachers to make decisions that are hurtful to our students."
At a distance, the dispute seems odd for a school system that's widely seen as an attractive, lucrative workplace.
This year, Howard schools fielded 6,867 applications for 356 open teaching positions. The system had just 68 resignations for reasons other than retirement, and of those, 21 were teachers already on long-term leave.
School officials say starting teacher salaries in Howard County this past year were $45,971 — third-highest in the state behind Montgomery County and Baltimore City. Howard's average teacher salary is also third in the state, according to the Maryland State Department of Education, behind Montgomery and Calvert counties.
Foose said the county's "enlightened" leadership makes sure the school budget is well-funded, and spokeswoman Rebecca Amani-Dove said the system is "committed to making sure our employees are the highest-paid in the state."
Lemle said the current talks aren't just about money, though teachers want a two-year pact with a 4 percent raise plus step increases each year. They also want additional planning time, technology access for all employees and other stipulations, he said.
"It's easy to demonize the association and its leadership," Lemle said. "It's much harder to say, 'We won't negotiate planning time. And we won't negotiate access to technology for support professionals.' But that is the position of the board of education."
Foose said issues such as planning time are "something we can look at outside of the negotiated agreement" and shouldn't hold up the contract.
She has held firm on what she said is a fair offer: a one-year deal with a 3 percent pay raise and a step increase of up to 6 percent for eligible teachers. The step increase wouldn't take effect until the spring.
Officials say the proposal amounts to $26.8 million in raises, and anything more than a one-year deal is unrealistic under current budget constraints.
Of the 24 public school systems in Maryland, 18 operate with multiyear agreements for teachers. But only four of those — Baltimore, Carroll, Cecil and Montgomery counties — have multiyear contracts that include salaries; the rest have agreements that cover certain aspects of the contract, but teacher compensation is negotiated on an annual basis.
Meanwhile, other counties in the region have wrapped up negotiations with teacher unions.
In contrast to Howard, union leaders in Baltimore County said negotiations went smoothly for that county's new pact, which gives teachers and principals a 3 percent bonus this year followed by a 5 percent increase in the 2015-2016 school year.
"We were very, very pleased with the new contract," said Abby Beytin, president of the Teachers Association of Baltimore County. "A 5 percent raise the following year is a big deal."
The three-year agreement, ratified by the school board and unions, gives county teachers and principals one of their largest jumps in pay in recent years but still leaves them significantly behind their peers in other major suburban and urban systems in Maryland.
For the first time, Baltimore County principals and assistant principals who take on assignments in struggling schools will receive 2 percent more than other principals, said Bill Lawrence, executive director of the Council of Administrative and Supervisory Employees, which represents assistant principals and principals.
In Anne Arundel, teachers will receive a step increase this year but no cost-of-living adjustment.
Carroll County teachers did not receive a cost-of-living adjustment or step increase this year. All employees did receive a 2.5 percent one-time bonus. Carroll teachers, who are under a multiyear salary contract, will get a 3 percent bonus in 2015 and a 2.5 percent COLA and 1 percent bonus in 2016.