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Harford school budget battle lines shape up once again

The new year may be a done deal as far as flipping the calendar goes, but the countdown to the July 1 start of the Harford County government's budget year is once again accompanied by a fanfare all its own, courtesy of the leadership of the local teachers union and other school funding advocates.

Speaking earlier this week at a regular session of the Joppa-Joppatowne Community Council Monday, Ryan Burbey, president of the Harford County Education Association, outlined the teachers union's push this year for increased county funding for the school system with a priority to giving teachers raises. Burbey made a similar pitch the following night at the Harford County Council's legislative session.

Stakes are high in the school budget process this time of year, as the Harford Board of Education moves toward passage of its next operating budget and transmits it to the county executive and county council for approval of the county's share of funding.

The $442.9 million operating budget Superintendent Robert Tomback has proposed for the 2014 fiscal year requests a $15.1 million increase and will rely on the county for most of the additional money. The additional funding includes some money for salary increases for teachers and the school system's other employees, more than 5,200 in all, with the raises subject to union negotiations which are taking place.

Meanwhile, the public review process of the budget at the school board level continues next week. The board is scheduled to hold more hearings on the budget at 6 p.m. Monday, Jan. 14, and 6 p.m. Wednesday, Jan. 16, at school system headquarters in the A.A. Roberty Building at 102 Hickory Ave. in Bel Air. The board, whose previous hearings on the budget have been sparsely attended, will likely take a final vote on the budget in early February.

Urging participation

During the Joppa Community Council's meeting Monday at the Sheriff's Office Southern Precinct, both Burbey and school board member Robert Frisch talked about the new school budget with the community council members and about a dozen other people who attended.

Burbey's presentation started by urging that community members turn out at 6 p.m. Jan. 28 at Aberdeen High School for a budget planning session organized by Harford County Executive David R. Craig.

"We're trying to organize communities to come out and support the idea that schools are your priority," Burbey said.

To that end, he encouraged people to turn out in support of a $15.1 million requested increase in the school system operating budget, which Burbey noted includes increases of $6.3 million to cover staff raises and another $6.6 million to cover increased costs associated with providing school system staff with medical and other benefits. The balance of the proposed $15.1 million increase requested, $2.2 million, would cover a range of increased costs associated with operating the school system.

Burbey said the raises proposed for teachers and staff would be the first substantial raises since a salary freeze went into effect three years ago, though teachers were given a 1 percent raise in this fiscal year.

He went on to say teacher salaries in Harford County have not kept pace with those in surrounding jurisdictions, noting the starting salary for a first-year teacher is $41,000 in Harford County, which he said is third from the bottom among Maryland's 24 public school systems.

"It can't go on at the rate it has," he said of Harford County's public school teacher salary structure.

Though teachers received a substantial round of salary increases prior to the salary freeze that coincided with the economic downturn, Harford County has not kept pace with other jurisdictions in Maryland when it comes to maintaining any gains made in teacher pay ranking in the state since then, Burbey said.

This sentiment echoed comments made in December when the pay increases were proposed by Superintendent Robert Tomback. At the time he said: "We know we've fallen behind from our neighboring counties in Baltimore and Cecil."

Burbey reiterated the oft-stated argument that teachers from Harford County end up leaving the local school system once they have a few years of experience for higher pay in neighboring counties. This, however, hasn't been supported by the school system's annual report on teacher retention. In 2012, the teacher retention rate for Harford County Public Schools for the previous academic year was 93.7 percent, among the highest in the Baltimore metropolitan area. Also, 34.8 percent of the 210 teachers who left during that period were retirees.

The teachers union president also outlined why he believes teacher salaries and generally funding for the school can be increased without raising taxes in Harford County.

"I don't think it's necessary to increase taxes to better fund schools," he said.

He went on to say last year the county government allocation for public works "pay go" projects totaled $39 million. Though once allocated for construction, so called "pay go" money cannot be allocated for general operating expenses like salaries, but if that money is allocated for the school system rather than construction, it can be spent in the school system's general fund budget.

Differing views

The issue of capital projects, specifically school construction, is one where Burbey and school board member Frisch had differing views.

While Burbey said his priority, as head of the union, is to advocate for staff salaries and benefits, he understands the need for up-to-date school buildings. All the same, he contended, students are better off with a highly competent, well-paid teaching staff and old buildings than well-appointed schools with weak teaching staffs.

Frisch, an elected school board member representing the Joppa-Edgewood district, as well as an appointed member of the Joppa Community Council, said the school system budget process will involve not only issues of teacher salaries but also key decisions on which schools should receive priority status for reconstruction and renovation projects and also matters of school security. Frisch is also a social studies teacher in the Baltimore County school district.

Frisch commended Burbey's comments, which were initially billed as being a brief request that people attend the Jan. 28 budget event but expanded into an hour-long presentation, as having "a lot of factual information."

The school board member went on to note, however, that in his position, a range of issues needs to be addressed, including school construction and reconstruction. Though Harford County's public school system has seen a decrease of 2,000 students over the past decade, coupled with the addition of a new high and middle school complex at Patterson Mill, construction, or more specifically reconstruction, is a high priority for the county school board.

He noted that he and other board members are at odds with Harford County Executive Craig over the next funding priority for a high school reconstruction project. Joppatowne High School, he said, had been in the review process for reconstruction consideration last year but ended up being turned down, and it will be in the consideration process again this year. Meanwhile, Frisch said, the county executive, a Havre de Grace native, has added into the process plans to rebuild Havre de Grace High School and has been making that a top priority.

"It's no secret where the county executive is from," Frisch said, noting his opposition to having the Havre de Grace project take priority over one for Joppatowne High.

On the broader issue of the school system budget process and how school funding priorities are set and managed, Frisch said the school board has plans to establish a citizen advisory committee on the school system budget. The board of education has several volunteer citizen advisory committees, which consist of experts in various fields who offer their advice to the board on a variety of subjects from school security, to special needs programs, to family life education.

Frisch said the board's plan is to solicit people who work in finance, business and other management areas to volunteer to offer advice to the board with regard to the details of the budget process.

Burbey speaks to council

In speaking to members of the county council Tuesday, HCEA head Burbey said the elected officials need to continue funding higher teacher salaries and to provide more financial support for the school system in general.

Burbey presented many of the same statistics about the county's school system having some of the lowest salaries in the state.

He noted the school system is the second largest employer in the county and teachers would earn several thousand dollars more by working in Baltimore or Cecil County.

"Anytime you're handcuffing the second largest employer, you're going to have an economic impact," he said.

Burbey said more than 6,400 jobs have been added to the labor force and the county's "economic note is not dire."

The county nevertheless ranked 22nd out of 24 counties for new teacher salaries, he said.

"Unless something changes, what impetus do our teachers have to put down roots here?" Burbey said.

Councilman Dick Slutzky pointed out that many homes have been devalued in the county and Harford is not going to get the property tax income it once would have.

Burbey replied that creates a "self-defeating cycle" by saying the county should cut the school system because it is not getting revenue, thus discouraging even more people from moving here.

Although he commended the council for solving the issue of school overcrowding, Burbey said it was not enough.

"Those beautiful schools that we've built, without qualified teachers to provide instruction, are nothing but beautiful window dressing," he said.

Councilwoman Mary Ann Lisanti said she is concerned about teacher salaries, but she challenged Burbey to create a budgeting and contractual process that gives the council more opportunity to address teachers' issues.

"Teachers make requests, but their requests are not congruent with their employment contract," she said.

After Burbey said HCEA hopes to negotiate a contract with the school system "very shortly," Lisanti replied: "So we've already missed the deadline."

Burbey said Superintendent Tomback has presented "a fair budget" and it would not make sense for HCEA to negotiate until June.

"I still contend it's a game of chicken and it's at the expense of our teachers," Lisanti told him.

Council President Billy Boniface agreed, explaining the council does not really have a role to play in the budget process until later in the spring, long after the school budget has been presented to the county executive, who can in turn reduce the amount of county funding requested.

"The problem is a very difficult one and one that needs to be addressed or [there] has to be something done earlier in the process," Boniface said.

Burbey said Lisanti did raise an important point, that the HCEA and council should be cooperating more.

Before the situation gets "charged up" in the spring, perhaps everyone can come together with a plan, Burbey said.

"I don't want to be mistaken. I am here to get money for teachers but I am also here to educate you and to hopefully get the money that the school system needs to just go on," he added.

Slutzky noted costs of living are higher everywhere, and teachers in places like Montgomery County cannot afford to live there, either.

Aegis staff member Bryna Zumer contributed to this story.

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