Harford teachers, school board at a standstill on contract

After reaching an "impasse" in salary negotiations, the Harford County Education Association bargaining team has requested mediation with the Harford County Board of Education.

Both sides were in a bargaining session Thursday to reach an agreement on teacher salaries after Harford County Executive David Craig did not fund the budget request for more funds to support increases, according an HCEA news release.

The two sides could not reach an agreement, so the union declared an impasse, another step along the way toward what could ultimately be binding arbitration under the Maryland Fairness in Negotiations Act, a law passed by the Maryland General Assembly in 2010.

HCEA, which bargains for about 3,200 classroom teachers, guidance counselors, psychologists and other staff, has been negotiating a contract with the school system since late last year.

In January, the union and the school system reached a tentative agreement giving teachers a 2 percent cost of living raise. In addition, eligible teachers would have received what are known as salary step raises tied to the length of their service and attainment of certain continuing education benchmarks.

The deal, however, was contingent on the county government providing the money to pay for it, about $14 million.

The county executive declined to increase the county's share of the school budget by an amount sufficient to fund the teacher raises and similar raises negotiated by unions representing another 2,000 school employees. The Harford County Council likewise declined to make the additional money available in the final budget for FY12 it passed in May.

As a result of the county government's actions, the teachers and the school board had to go back to the negotiating table this month.

HCEA hired a financial consultant, who in turn pointed out areas where funding could be found. As of Thursday afternoon, HCEA was planning to seek mediation.

"Teachers are required to work at least one part-time job and sometimes more in order to pay their bills," HCEA President Randall Cerveny stated in the union's news release. "They would rather spend this time preparing supplemental activities for their students."

The school board, too, made attempts to mediate the situation by offering an extra day of paid leave in lieu of "previously negotiated compensation items," according to a school system news release.

"The Board of Education appreciates and values the hard-work and dedication of all of our employees and we worked diligently to identify an offering within our means to recognize that appreciation," Board President Mark Wolkow said.

The extra paid day off would not cost the school system "fiscally," Teri Kranefeld, the school system's manager of communications, wrote in an e-mail Monday, adding that it's more of a "productivity cost." The day has not been scheduled yet, she wrote, but would occur when the students are not in the building and essentially, the teachers are paid to work a certain amount of days and in this case, will simply work one day less.

Several phone messages left for Cerveny between Friday morning and Tuesday afternoon were not returned, but the school system release did state that the Harford County Education Services Council, another union had tentatively agreed to the extra paid leave day and renegotiated contract.

HCESC, according to its website, represents mostly instructional support professionals in the following classifications: nurses, clerical, paraeducators, inclusion helpers, media technicians, Braille technicians and interpreters.

Three other bargaining units for Harford County Public Schools employees have already reached contract agreements, the Association of Harford County Administrative, Technical and Supervisory Professionals, the Association of Public School Administrators and Supervisors of Harford County and the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees. These groups, too, will receive the extra paid leave day.

The school system's news release also said the schools were not at an "impasse" as the HCEA had yet to file a request to the School Labor Relations Board, as required by law.

Unlike the other unions representing school employees, teachers have the binding arbitration vehicle at their disposal, where their contract issues could ultimately be decided by the five-member labor board, whose members are appointed by the governor. The law was not in effect prior to the negotiations for the 2010 Harford teachers' contract, which also went to impasse before a settlement was finally reached.

Harford teachers and other school employees have not had a cost of living raise since the 2008-09 school year.

Aegis staff member Allan Vought contributed to this article.

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