Harford teacher contract talks – for two years – still unresolved

As last year's dispute over the contract for 3,200 Harford County Public Schools teachers continues to drag out, the school system and the county's teachers union are simultaneously continuing their talks on a contract for the 2012-13 school year.

In December, Randy Cerveny, president of the Harford County Education Association, or HCEA, the union that represents the teachers, and the Harford County Board of Education began negotiations on next year's contract.

Those talks began as the union and the school system were still going through a new binding arbitration process – initiated by a 2010 state law – regarding the teachers' 2011-12 contract.

Harford's teachers still have not received any of the 3 percent cost of living raise and yearly increment raises they negotiated with the school system last winter, mainly because County Executive David Craig and the Harford County Council did not provide the additional funding to the school system for the raises.

Regarding last year's contract, Teri Kranefeld, Harford County Public Schools Communications Manager, said earlier this week that the school system is still waiting to hear back on a ruling from the Public School Labor Relations Board, which was established to handle such disputes under the 2010 Maryland Fairness in Negotiations Act.

As of Tuesday, Cerveny said, there was "nothing new to report" on arbitration. Both sides submitted their reports to the state board in December, according to those familiar with the status of the case.

Calls to the labor relations board were not returned.

In January 2011, the union and school system reached an agreement, contingent on the county providing the money, for a 3 percent cost of living raise, plus up to two salary step raises for eligible teachers. In all, the funding for the raises would have been around $14 million.

The budget increase was subsequently rejected by Craig and the county council when they approved the 2011-12 county budget. Craig said if the school system wanted to fund the contracts of the teachers and its other unions, then school officials should reduce spending elsewhere in its budget. The other four unions, which represent about 2,200 employees, eventually settled their contracts with the school system.

Since the school system didn't have the money to give the teachers raises, the HCEA and the board of education had to reopen negotiations on the 2011-12 contract last June.

HCEA's bargaining team requested mediation with the school board later that month after discussions reached a stalemate.

Harford County teachers and other HCPS employees have not had a cost of living raise since the 2008-2009 school year.

Though the 2011-12 contract and the 2012-13 contract are different, there is a convergence of sorts, if for no other reason than School Superintendent Robert Tomback has requested an increase for employee salaries in the 2012 budget that is roughly the same as what he requested a year ago, when the money was denied.

In the superintendent's proposed $447.3 million general operating budget for the 2012-13 school year, which was approved by the school board in January, represents an increase of $18.5 million, about 4.3 percent, from current spending. Most of the increase – $15.5 million – is expected to come from the county, as Tomback explained the majority of the additional money would go toward the board of education's goal of maintaining a competitive salary structure with surrounding counties for teachers and other professionals.

Based on previous years, however, the likelihood of Craig and the county council approving an increase of that magnitude is slim, something board members themselves conceded when they approved the new budget.

Board member James Thornton nevertheless said that HCPS employees need an "increase in compensation" and urged the board to create a plan that would support this salary raise, no matter how the county council votes.

Tomback met with Craig and members of the county executive's cabinet last month to discuss the new school budget request. Craig has until April 1 to finish his budget for 2012-13 and submit it to the county council for the council's approval.

There has been no indication from either school officials or the teachers union if the two sides plan to conclude talks on a 2012-13 contract before Craig acts on the school system's budget request for next year.

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