As contract negotiations between county schools and the teachers union continue to focus on salary adjustments, union officials have encouraged teachers to take part in two school-day activities they believe will drum up community support for the union.
But Howard County Superintendent Renee Foose has questioned teachers' involvement in such actions, saying she's concerned such displays could leave "a bad taste in the mouth of public opinion."
The union has orchestrated teacher activities it said were designed to take its message to the community. On Thursday, teachers took part in a "dress for respect day," where they were encouraged to dress in outfits that demonstrate that their jobs are parallel with professions that require business attire.
Another measure is a "work-to-contract action," which union officials say will take place at about a half-dozen schools after spring break. Teachers, Lemle said, will be encouraged to go home at the end of their workday, rather than stay late to get tasks completed.
In February, teachers and the Howard County Education Association sharply criticized Foose's initial budget proposal, which included a 0.5 percent cost-of-living increase but no step increase on the salary scale.
HCEA President Paul Lemle said the union wanted a deal with automatic step increases of about 5 percent a year for five years. He said during recent negotiations, the school system offered a step increase as well as 3 percent cost-of-living adjustment for one year. He said the union favored the offer but is now requesting a multiyear deal.
Foose said last week that the school system's proposed budget now includes an adjustment of up to 5 percent, but she opposes a multiyear agreement because of budget uncertainties.
Teachers are also requesting more planning time and access to computers for support professionals, Lemle said. He said negotiations between the two sides have been "functionally stalled" since winter.
Jennifer Bezy, a first-grade teacher at Fulton Elementary School who helped develop the "dress for respect" event, said the measure was "an easy way to show that we are unified by doing something that would not in any way hurt the kids or take up any extra time, and make that point that we are professionals."
"The bottom line is that we're asking for time to successfully and professionally plan for our children," Bezy said of the request for more planning time. "We're just looking for benign, simple ways to make our stand and say, 'Please listen to us.' "
"Teachers are not driven by the extrinsic motivations of contracts," said Bernadette Bechta, a career and technology education teacher at Mount Hebron High School. "They just come in and do their job every day and work on it during the weekends to make it better. We want to get more time to collaborate with people."
Lemle said the union is staging the work-to-contract action because "it's critical that the school system understands how much work it gets for free every day from veteran educators."
Foose said that when she heard about the actions, "I was initially a little confused as to why the union would be asking teachers to participate in a job action. I was disappointed in union behavior.
"And mostly, my second concern was for teachers who are not generally caught up in these sort of things — and these sort of job actions really leave a bad taste in the mouth of public opinion," she said.
"What we don't want is the community seeing our teachers as anything less than what they are, great professionals."
Foose said multiyear contracts "guarantee nothing but disappointment" because next year's fiscal outlook is uncertain.
"There's no way to determine that," she said. "We're going to have a new county executive, so we have to basically zero out and start over every year. This year, we have a very nice compensation package that we built into our budget for our employees.
"All permanent employees are guaranteed to up to a 5 percent increase if, in fact, our budget is approved [by the County Council]," Foose said. "If we don't get that budget approved and we don't have a tentative agreement by July 1, that means salaries will not get adjusted, teachers will not get the increment and the cost-of-living [allowances] will not get adjusted.
"So we will either extend the existing contract or teachers will be working without," Foose said. "But to me, it's disappointing to think that July 1 will come and we won't be able to make the necessary salary adjustments that we worked toward negotiating with our employee groups."
Foose said that she is confident in the negotiation process.
"We put a great package together for our workforce. There are a few sticking points, but there always are," she said. "We're looking at up to a 5 percent increase. That is a tremendous package.
"In addition to that, we are still paying 85 to 87 percent of the health care packages of our school system employees," Foose said. "It's a tremendous benefit, and what I would not want is the public to pull away [from the job actions] that teachers are being greedy."