Baltimore County

Harford teachers: Most underpaid people in the world

Forgive the hyperbole, but it indeed must be so. Harford County public school teachers are the most underpaid people in the world. Just ask some of them.

That's certainly the picture that emerges year in and year out, especially in the fall, winter and spring, when the school system budget comes to the fore, contract negotiations are in progress and then the county executive and county council decide up or down on the money for the school system, and then the whole cycle begins again.

(You may have noticed I omitted summer from the above paragraph. Could it be that's because the teachers are off in July and parts of June and August?)

Let's get this straight. I believe teaching school is a noble profession, one without which most of us would not have survived to adulthood. Do I think teachers are underpaid, and hence underappreciated, as so many of them in this county would have us believe? Depends on the meaning of underpaid, I suppose.

I know several cabdrivers who make about what the average teacher does (sans the benefits) and who put in the kind of hours to achieve their income that many teachers claim they are forced to work (not counting the summer, of course). Are cabdrivers as important to our well-being as a teacher? I think we would tend to say "no," unless you don't have a driver's license, are incapacitated and need to travel somewhere or are lost and on foot in the wrong neighborhood in a strange town.

How about police officers? Teachers and police officers have roughly commensurate pay. I'm sure many of the latter think they are underpaid. Are police officers important to our well-being? Absolutely. As important as teachers? Perhaps.

A soldier, a sailor, a marine don't get paid much compared to a teacher — or a police officer, even when you take into account the incidentals that come with the job —meals, lodging, bargain shopping at the PX. People in the military often work long hours, sometimes around the clock. Many live in life-threatening situations second by second. Most probably aren't happy with the pay, but their circumstances also don't allow them to be vocal about it. Do we need our military folks as badly as we need teachers? Like it or not, we most certainly do.

OK, enough of the comparisons. Here's a simple math lesson, what I like to call the Harford County willingness to pay equation: Declining school enrollment + aging population = less tolerance for higher taxes and higher government spending.

That essentially explains what has transpired in Harford County over the past generation. As a result, gone are the days when the teachers as a group could sway local elections and, by extension, their pay demands were taken seriously by the local political elite.

Think I'm mistaken? These days when the pay issue is raised at school board meetings, county budget hearings and other public forums, the people doing the talking are almost exclusively teachers. You seldom hear from outraged parents, many of whom I suspect are too busy worrying about how to pay their mortgages and income and property tax bills to concern themselves with some other group's claimed economic misery.

There was a time when teachers and their union could drive the political and public policy debate with the threat that, unless teacher pay demands were met, Harford's children would grow up uneducated and unable to support themselves. That's no longer true. Similarly, the threats of teachers leaving en masse for other school systems or other professions are not taken seriously in this community. It's like the kid who says, "If you don't let me play video games instead of doing homework, I'll run away," and the parent who responds: "I'll help you pack."

Maybe our teachers have every right to complain about the pay and their neglected status, but I suspect their words have become akin to Chicken Little warning about the sky falling. Fall it may indeed, but right now, few people appear to be listening.

So, to come back to the beginning, are Harford County's teachers the most underpaid people in the world? If it depends on who is doing the paying, in the Harford County of 2012 the answer is: Probably not.

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