Howard teachers, school system heading to impasse

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.

If Foose's proposal is approved, it will mark the first time in five years that educators will receive a COLA, but will represent the fifth year in a row that educators have received a step increment. To clarify, in the 2011-12 school year, educators received a delayed increment, which was implemented in halves—once at the beginning of the year and the other half at the end of the year.

In an email, spokeswoman Rebecca Amani-Dove said the school system is "committed to making sure our employees are the highest paid in the state."

She reiterated that the school system's proposal amounts to $26.8 million in pay raises.

"We secured $21.8 million of this as a placeholder for raises through the budget process, an amount that shows the shared commitment to teachers by the county government, the Board of Education, and the Superintendent," she said. "Yet, the union leaders appear to be moving the goal posts, rather than collaborating and communicating, when this is now a time for compromise."

While HCEA is frustrated with its current contract situation, the Howard County Public School System remains an attractive workplace as 6,867 applications were received this year for 356 open teaching positions.

The school system received 68 resignations this year from teachers for reasons other than retirement, according to the school system's communications department.

Of those 68, 21 were not active teachers, but teachers whose long-term leave had expired.

Statewide comparison

As of the 2013-14 school year, a starting teacher in Howard County received $45,971, third highest in the state behind Montgomery County and Baltimore City. A teacher with a master's degree at step one in the county received $49,270, once again third highest in the state behind Montgomery County and Baltimore City, according to data from the Maryland State Department of Education.

While those are starting salary figures, the average salary for a full-time teacher in Howard County is $70,245.

With HCEA and the school system staring down mediation, other counties around the state have wrapped up their negotiations with teachers unions.

Compared to HCEA's requested four percent COLA in each of the next two years plus a step increase each year, teachers in:

• Anne Arundel County will receive a step increase this year, but no COLA.

• Baltimore County teachers will receive a 3 percent one-time bonus and a step increase this year. In fiscal year 2016, educators are set to receive a 5 percent COLA and a step increase.

• Carroll County did not receive a COLA or step increase this year. All employees did receive a 2.5 percent one-time bonus. Carroll teachers, which are under a multi-year salary contract agreement are looking at a 3 percent one-time bonus in 2015 and a 2.5 percent COLA and 1 percent one-time bonus in 2016.

• Frederick County teachers are looking at 1.1 percent COLA plus $105 to offset increased insurance costs applied to the pay scale.

• Harford County did not receive a COLA or step increase this year. Teacher salaries in Harford are negotiated annually.

• Montgomery County will receive a general 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 will also be receiving a step increase each year.

While Montgomery County teachers are looking at three years of increases, contracts also require employees to pay a greater share of their health insurance premium, according to school system spokesman Dana Tofig.

Over the next two years, the amount each employee pays will increase by 7 percentage points from five and 10 percent to 12 and 17 percent depending upon their plan.

Currently, Howard County teachers pay 13 to 15 percent of their health insurance premiums.

In recent weeks, Lemle has also pointed out that county firefighters and police officers will be receiving a four percent pay increase beginning July 1 through their contracts negotiated with the Howard County Council.

Although the contracts have yet to be approved —they go before the Howard County Council Thursday— they have historically been multi-year agreements.

Meanwhile, school board members will be receiving a raise following the upcoming elections. With House Bill 1093 passed, the chairman of the board will receive $17,000 annually, up from $14,000, and the other elected members will receive $15,000, up from $12,000, once the new board is installed in December.

In the Board of Education race, HCEA has endorsed Bess Altwerger, a Towson University adjunct professor, Zaneb Beams, a Columbia pediatrician, Dan Furman, a former school system attorney and current board member Cindy Vaillancourt.

Baltimore Sun reporter Joe Burris contributed to this article.

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