Howard school officials will begin mediation with the county teachers union Wednesday, the latest step in contentious contract negotiations that lasted throughout the school year.

The Howard County Education Association declared an impasse last month after failing to reach agreements with the school system on such matters as salary increases, step implementation and the duration of the agreement.

"We're optimistic about the mediation session, and we hope it results in a settlement as soon as possible," said union President Paul Lemle.

Under procedures followed by the Maryland Public School Labor Relations Board, both sides have presented "last and best offers" and have agreed on a mediator to hear the matter. Union officials said two hearings are scheduled. After Wednesday's session at Board of Education headquarters in Ellicott City, another is tentatively scheduled for July 31.

The mediator must conclude talks and issue a written settlement for both parties within 25 days of the first session.

If at the end of negotiations an agreement hasn't been reached, the matter moves to arbitration, and the labor board will begin its own proceedings within 20 days. According to procedures, the labor board would then decide whether to adopt the school system's final offer, the teachers union's final offer or the mediator's settlement offer.

Along with salary and step issues, other matters that led to the deadlock include elementary school planning time and stipends for elementary and middle school music and band directors, union officials said. They said agreements have been reached on such matters as sick and bereavement leave and reimbursement for graduate and undergraduate continuing education.

jburris@baltsun.com