After contract negotiations dragged into the summer last year, the Howard County Education Association and Board of Education agreed that negotiations should begin two months earlier this year to prevent another drawn-out process.

That hasn't exactly worked out as planned.

As students left school for summer break Friday, the teachers union filed a declaration of impasse with the Maryland Public School Labor Relations Board.

The impasse could trigger mediation and, ultimately, binding arbitration in a dispute that has lasted much of the school year. Filing the impasse means both sides will be asked to make their last offers, then mediation could last several weeks.

The mediation and potentially arbitration process could take nearly two months, but is expected to be completed before the school year begins Aug. 25.

The impasse declaration comes nearly two weeks after the teachers union enacted a work-to-rule action, which caused some teachers -- specifically at Atholton and River Hill high schools -- to inform their students that they may not be able to write them a letter of recommendation for their college applications.

Superintendent Renee Foose blasted the work-to-rule action last week, saying that in the closing days of the school year, the union was "asking teachers to make decisions that are hurtful to our students."

Contract Demands

Contract negotiations this year got off to a rocky start and haven't recovered.

Although the Board of Education voted in September to make negotiations public and HCEA supported those public negotiations, the teachers union filed suit with the state Public School Labor Relations Board, alleging that the school board had violated its contract with the teachers union by not first negotiating the matter with HCEA.

The Labor Relations Board subsequently ruled in HCEA's favor and in December, the Board of Education voted to continue its long-standing practice of closed negotiations with the teachers union.

Although Foose publicly expressed her desire to open negotiations just two weeks ago, the union has decided to declare impasse.

HCEA represents 5,500 of the county's more than 6,800 educators.

The Howard County Education Association has been pushing for additional planning time, collaboration time between teachers and paraeducators, guaranteed technology access for all school employees and, most importantly, a two-year salary agreement with the school board that union leadership believes will provide predictability and future financial stability for the county's 6,800 teachers.

Of the 24 public school systems in Maryland, 18 are operating with a multi-year agreement for teachers, but only four of those counties have a multi-year salary contract with its teachers union—Baltimore, Carroll, Cecil and Montgomery counties.

The rest of the counties have multi-year agreements that cover certain language aspects of the contract, but teacher compensation is negotiated on an annual basis.

If Howard teachers are to receive a multi-year deal this year, it would be their first since 2010.

From 2007 through 2010, Howard teachers operated under a three-year agreement, which did cover salaries for two years. From 2000 through 2007, the teachers union operated under three separate multi-year deals, which covered salaries.

Under the HCEA contract proposal, teachers would receive a 4 percent cost-of-living adjustment (COLA) and step on July 1 in each of the next two years.

On the other hand, the school board and Foose have countered with a one-year contract that includes a 3 percent COLA effective July 1 and a step increase of up to 6 percent for educators who are eligible for a step. The step increase would take effect in spring of 2015.