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.
Harford County teachers did not receive a salary or step increase this year. Teacher salaries in Harford are negotiated annually.
If Howard teachers were to receive a multiyear pact, it would be their first since 2007-2010, when teachers had a three-year deal that included raises for two years.
Howard is often compared to Montgomery, where teachers will receive a wage increase in each of the next three years, including 1.5 percent this year and 2 percent in fiscal years 2016 and 2017. Eligible employees also will receive a step increase each year.
Montgomery's contract also requires employees to start paying a greater share of health insurance premiums, according to school system spokesman Dana Tofig. Over the next two years, those amounts will increase from between 5 percent and 10 percent to between 12 percent and 17 percent, depending upon the employee's plan.
Howard teachers now pay 13 percent to 15 percent of health insurance premiums.
The standoff could be resolved this month. After the union declared an impasse, the school board voted to extend the current contract — which was set to expire at the end of June — to July 30 while mediation with the Maryland Public School Labor Relations Board takes place. The move, Foose said, ensures teachers don't lose benefits over the summer.
But ill feelings remain.
"I couldn't be more disappointed in union leadership," Foose said recently about the work-to-rule action, which she said came at a time when students were asking school personnel for recommendations for college and for summer jobs. "They're not advocating for students. They're not advocating for teachers. They're advocating for their own rhetoric, their own agenda."
Lemle rejected the notion that teachers wouldn't write letters of recommendation for students, saying such letters for this year's graduates were written long ago.
"We are going to meet all of our professional obligations. Teachers are still going to write letters of recommendation. They're still going to put on concerts," he said.
"What we're saying is that future after-contract-hours activities are voluntary, and we can't commit to them at this time," Lemle said. "Principals are already preparing to make accommodations about how to do letters of recommendation during the work day, and that's what we want to see."
Average teacher salaries
Anne Arundel County: $61,793
Baltimore City: $65,785
Baltimore County: $60,906
Prince George's: $64,988
Source: Maryland State Department of Education, March 2014