Harford exec plans to pay back schools for bonuses paid

Harford County Executive David Craig plans to introduce legislation at a future county council meeting that will allow the county's school system to be reimbursed for the $625 bonus that went to each school system employee — about $1.6 million — except to union members that did not agree to the one-time payment.

Harford County Executive David Craig plans to introduce legislation at a future county council meeting that will allow the county's school system to be reimbursed for the $625 bonus that went to each school system employee — about $1.6 million — except to union members that did not agree to the one-time payment.

Craig's spokesman Ben Lloyd wrote in an e-mail Tuesday that the county executive will introduce that legislation during a January county council meeting, though he didn't specify which one.

Meanwhile, the man who led county teachers to a strike over salary issues in the mid-1970s is criticizing his former union's current leadership for the stand it took. Chet H. Elder, who was responsible for making the Harford County Education Association, a force in county politics throughout the 1970s and into 1980s, says he thinks Randy Cerveny, the HCEA president, and the other HCEA leaders made a strategic error.

"Harford County teachers should be outraged that their union president is so lacking in common sense that he snatched defeat from the jaws of victory," Elder, who was HCEA's top negotiator for a dozen years, wrote in a letter to today's Aegis Open Forum. "Who in his right mind would deny a Christmas bonus to his dues paying members? Anyone with the most basic knowledge of labor relations would know how to let the County Executive deliver this much deserved holiday treat without jeopardizing the collective bargaining process."

Elder, a former Edgewood resident who is retired and lives in Bethany Beach, De., also writes that by getting the bonus bill amended to change "one-time bonus" to "payment," the HCEA president miscalculated the impact and underestimated the response of the county executive.

"Trying to turn a clearly articulated one-time bonus into a multiyear obligation by switching one word, is either the strategy of [an] outright deceptive lobbyist, or the misadventure of a neophyte who doesn't have a clue," Elder wrote. His complete letter is on page A10 of today's edition of The Aegis.

Cerveny, the HCEA president, could not be reached Tuesday for comment.

Harford County Public School employees represented by the four collective bargaining groups that had signed a memorandum of understanding accepting the bonus had already been paid, Superintendent Robert Tomback said during the Dec. 19 Board of Education meeting. Harford's other government employees also received the bonus before the holidays.

The payroll for those employees "had already been processed," Tomback explained, with the understanding that it was a "forward-funded payment" that the county government would pay back. This was done, however, before Craig vetoed legislation that funded the school system's portion of the funds because he felt the one union that hadn't agreed to the one-time payment was trying to use the money for salary bargaining leverage.

The Harford County Education Association, which represents 3,200 teachers and counselors, was the lone group that did not sign the memorandum and, as it stands this week, the group will not receive the bonus under the legislation Craig plans to introduce.

As for the teachers who did not receive the bonus, "the ball remains in HCEA's court," Lloyd wrote Tuesday. "Had HCEA agreed to accept the one-time bonus, as we were all led to believe they would until their leadership backtracked following Council approval, teachers would have had their bonuses by now."

Craig's veto of the legislation was in response to the union's "attempt to hijack this fund appropriation to support its case before the Maryland Public School Labor Relations Board," the county executive previously wrote.

Lloyd added in Tuesday's e-mail that Craig has all along "wanted the county's hard-working teachers to receive the same one-time bonus that other county employees received. "

Amendments the council passed to the bill that funded the bonus, Craig said, would let HCEA use that money to reopen salary negotiations with Harford's school board. This would turn the one-time payment into part of base salaries for teachers, obligating the county for more money in upcoming budgets.

Those amendments, County Councilman Dion Guthrie said, were "totally irresponsible."

Guthrie, who represents Edgewood, Joppa, Joppatowne and Magnolia, says he supports the teacher bonuses in full — "the whole $1,250."

"Craig says the money is there," he went on. "If the money's there, give it to them [the teachers.]"

The councilman said it was the council's duty to "simply vote on that bill" as Craig presented it and not to include amendments that "cut the bonus in half," leaving the stipend as a one-time payment of $625 and the rest of the money being left up for debate. Originally, county employees were to receive one half of $1,250 before the holidays and the rest in June at the end of the fiscal year.

"I don't believe that we should be in the middle of that [negotiations,]" Guthrie continued. That is why he abstained from voting on the bill, he said.

Guthrie said he asked the other council members what guarantee they had that Craig would introduce legislation to fund the other half of the payment, to which they responded that there was none. (Under the county charter, only the county executive can introduce legislation to spend or transfer money.)

"So why do it?" Guthrie asked.

Guthrie, a retired union organizer, said since the council doesn't have any authority to be part of the collective bargaining process for Harford County Public Schools, creating those amendments was overstepping their boundaries.

"I'm not sure we're [the council] not in violation of the National Labor Relations Act," he said. The act, which protects the rights of employees, as well as employers, encourages collective bargaining. This is why, Guthrie believes, HCEA wouldn't sign the memorandum of understanding.

Guthrie added that he will not try to override Craig's veto, though he wishes the county executive would have vetoed the entire amendment to the bill.

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