No hearing before the Howard County Board of Education in recent years has ever drawn more than 200 or so people — not even redistricting.
But the board room Thursday, Jan. 29 was filled to the brim with more than 300 people, and across the parking lot another 150 or so watched via live-stream in the Homewood Center cafeteria as teacher after teacher criticized Superintendent Renee Foose's proposed $742 million operating budget request for fiscal year 2015.
In the past, budget hearings were limited to a few people lauding the continued support of particular programs in the budget. But Thursday, it was standing room only in the board room, with the crowd setting up extra chairs, sitting on the floor or spilling out into the hallway or an adjacent room. Such was the crowd the Board Chairwoman Ellen Giles asked that the teachers keep the exits and aisles clear, concerned the amount of people violated the fire code.
Over the course of two hours, almost three dozen people took the podium to share their thoughts on the proposed budget. By and large those who testified were teachers, angry that the request has yet to include funds for raises. As of right now, the request includes a .5 percent cost-of-living increase, and no step increase on the salary scale — though, Giles said, that could change. Over the course of budget work sessions, the request is frequently altered to include raises.
The teachers, about 500 total, wore red and held signs, imploring the board to pay teachers a fair wage. During testimony, long-held issues were again made clear, like the fact that teachers in other counties have higher lifetime earnings than those in Howard County. If Howard County is indeed the best educational system in the state, teachers argued, they should be paid accordingly.
"History has a unique purpose among the social sciences," said HCEA President Paul Lemle in his testimony. "It is an accounting of our failures and our accomplishments. From 2003-2008, this Board and this Association increased salaries by five percent a year for five years. But recent history has not been kind to our teachers."
Though teachers have received raises, the steps on the salary scale have not been adjusted, which essentially means that there's been a freeze on lifetime earnings for six years, Lemle said. Additionally, teachers are now paying more for health insurance and their pensions, tax cuts have expired, and inflation has held steady. Furthermore, he said, raises for teachers in Baltimore, Frederick, Anne Arundel and Montgomery counties are already included in those districts' proposed budget requests.
"History is an accounting of our failures and our accomplishments," Lemle said. "Take action now. It is time for the six year period of decreasing pay for public employees to end, and to be reversed. Don't spend $300,000 more next year than you did this year on outside contractors. If history is your guide, you will see little return on investment in untested new programs, in more standardized tests, in ten ton trucks, or in better computers for those who don't have chalk on their hands. Invest in your people. We believe in the mission of this system and we can make it happen."
Teachers cited an ever-growing workload, changes in assessments and teacher evaluations, and the fact that many cannot afford to live in the communities in which they teach, as reasons for needing a substantial raise. Many said they were growing disheartened, that they didn't feel valued or respected.
"I love my students, I love my job but I am truly despaired," said teacher Cathy Mundy. "That's the only word I can say."
The fact that the board recently asked the Howard County delegation to create legislation giving board members a raise caused further frustration among teachers.
"I don't begrudge you (asking for a raise)," said Marijane Monck, a teacher at Talbott Springs Elementary School. "Part of your reasoning is that your workload has increased. Well, so has ours. ... In justifying a pay raise for yourselves, you said 'the demands of the position have increased over time.' ... Or 'we could use it as a recruiting tool to get good people.' ... Or, 'a better salary would encourage more people to run because the marketplace talks, and it's reasonable for people to expect compensation that's respectable.' I'd like you to remember that word, respectable. All of these quotes could have come from the mouths of educators across the county."
If that legislation is approved, upon new terms board members would receive a $6,000, or 50 percent, raise. No current board member would receive a raise unless he or she were re-elected.
After the hearing, Giles said that rarely does the initial budget request include a place holder for raises. That money is added into the budget request throughout the work sessions; last year, the budget included $13.9 million for teacher raises. Also, Giles said, putting a set amount of money in the budget while negotiations are ongoing makes it difficult to negotiate.
Public work sessions are scheduled for Tuesday, Feb. 4 at 7 p.m., Thursday, Feb. 6 at 1 p.m., Tuesday, Feb. 11 at 7 p.m. and Tuesday, Feb. 18 at 1 p.m. The board will adopt a final budget request Tuesday, Feb. 25. Giles said the board may consider holding a second public hearing, which was requested by several during testimony.
Some members of the operating budget review committee — the group of citizens charged by the board to review the budget — also came to the public hearing. PTA Council President Christina Delmont-Small, who also serves as co-chair of the committee, asked that answers to questions asked by board members during work sessions be posted publicly. After the meeting, Giles said that information was indeed posted on the board's website.
Delmont-Small said the school system must "take an active role in being open, transparent and accountable," and said everyone should be concerned that the new budget format doesn't contain information that historically has been provided to the public.
Earlier this month, committee members were chagrined to find that absent from the budget was a side-by-side comparison of what specific programs received in previous budgets, versus what they actually cost. Financial data detailing what was budgeted versus what was spent was provided to the review committee, but PTA Council President Christina Delmont-Small Thursday repeated her request that those numbers be made public. When Delmont-Small first asked for the numbers to be posted publicly Jan. 9, Foose had said the data was for account managers, or those with advanced degrees.
Tonya Tiffany, vice-president of issues on the PTA Council and committee member, held up her copy of the budget before the audience. She then held up a stack of papers about an inch thick — the year-to-year projected and actual budget costs.
"This is the information you do not have access to," she told the audience. "I could not understand the proposed budget if not for this. ... We need to make sure this is open and transparent. While this budget is pretty, and there's a lot of information in it and I thank you for that, but (it needs) that second part. I do not have an advanced degree, I have a regular degree. And I can understand it. I think the public should have access to it."