Head of home, hospital teachers takes concerns to Howard Board of Education

In the midst of the continuing impasse between the Howard County Board of Education and the Howard County Education Association, another group of teachers is also struggling to get its voice heard.

Tony McGuffin, president of the Howard County Home and Hospital Teachers Association, addressed the Board of Education Thursday, July 10, asking for a fair employment deal from the county, as well as increased collaboration and transparency from the board.

The HCHHTA, the only teaching department in the county not represented by a union, includes 65 teachers that travel around the county to give one-on-one instruction to students who are unable to get to school because of physical or emotional restrictions.

Instead of a contract agreement with the Board of Education or the Howard County Public School System, HCHHTA operates under a memorandum of understanding, but the memorandum has been expired for more than a year. There was an extension granted to the old version of the memorandum, but there are pressing issues that need to be addressed with no recent discussions to find a solution, said McGuffin.

"Put simply, we have a communication problem," McGuffin told the school board at Thursday's meeting. "You have refused to communicate with us for a year and a half, and that is a problem."

McGuffin said that over the past months he has unsuccessfully tried to reach out to board members through emails and phone calls in an attempt to reopen a dialogue.

"When I suggested open meetings, they didn't respond. When I suggested arbitrations, they didn't respond," he said.

Chairman Ellen Flynn Giles does not agree with McGuffin's assertion that there has been no response. She said she recalls having a lengthy conversation with McGuffin in early spring when the Board was setting its budget for the year.

Sometime around March or April, "I spoke to him on the phone for probably an hour and a half," said Giles. "In terms of a response from us as [in], 'This is the offer you would have,' that's not how it works."

The Board's direct involvement in the negotiation process is limited, added Giles.

"Part of, I think, his frustration is that he sees a role for us that isn't the role that we actually have," she said. "The Board itself doesn't negotiate, we approve negotiation parameters. We don't actually take part."

Pay at issue

Historically, the HCHHTA has had what McGuffin calls a "me-too" agreement with the HCEA, but that has not been the case this year, he said.

"It was just an understanding. If they got a raise, we got a raise. This is the first time we've been singled out like this [by the HCPSS]," he said.

The deal that the county presented to the HCHHTA would remove the wage table that was in place, which provided pay increases based on degree type, classroom experience and years spent teaching.

Instead there would be a flat hourly rate for every HCHHTA teacher, since they are not salaried employees. Though teachers with less than 10 years of experience would benefit from this change, anyone with more experience would face pay cuts ranging between 30 and 40 percent, said McGuffin.

"We have to be paid more accurately for what we do," he said. "If a flat rate is implemented, it would have to cover more hours."

For every six hours of instruction, home and hospital teachers receive one hour of payment for planning. But because of the customized nature of the lessons they provide, McGuffin said, home and hospital teachers can easily spend upward of a dozen hours each week in addition to their instruction time preparing lessons, picking up materials, recording grades or meeting with the students' counselors.

"I work full-time hours, but they don't pay me for the three or four [extra] hours a day that I work," said Vickie Miles, a teacher with the home and hospital program. Although her job description and title have remained the same, Miles said her responsibilities increase every year.

"It's scary, you know," she said. "I'm a single parent, I have kids in college, I have a mortgage to pay, and all of sudden they say, 'Oh, well we want to cut your salary 30 percent.'"

The teachers and school board don't agree on how to properly define the employment status of the HCHHTA teachers. Though McGuffin stated that they are "part-time non-contracted" employees, Giles said that for at least the past two years, "They are classified as temporary substitute teachers because they don't have permanent assignments."

However, home and hospital teachers are still described as "part-time, non-contracted employees who are hired on a per student basis" on the HCPSS website.

The HCPPS negotiator previously assigned to hold discussion with the HCHHTA, Ernesto Diaz, recently became the principal of Stevens Forest Elementary School. McGuffin said a new negotiator is expected in September.

Giles also said the state is changing how the HCPSS has to deliver educational service to students outside of school.

"They want kids to stay in school. If kids are not in school then they are requiring that whatever is delivered to them outside of school must meet the same standard," she said. That requires a complete reassessment of what is being offered by the home and hospital teachers.

Giles added that she is familiar with how beneficial the home and hospital system can be. Her son needed to make use of the system when he was in middle school, and she said these services "were a lifesaver" for her family.

"I am not interested in belittling or not respecting or not recognizing how important these services are," she said.

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