Teachers at Bel Air High School staged a job action Tuesday, part of an expanding protest among Harford County's 3,200 public school teachers over no raises and other contract issues.
A group of them also marched outside the Harford County Council's building in Bel Air Tueday, with many of the teachers then filing into the chamber where the council was expected to take its final vote on 2013 county budget, one that contains only a small increase in local funding for the school system.
The teachers' protest began Friday afternoon outside Ring Factory Elementary in Bel Air, where upward of 100 teachers marched and waved signs along Route 924 after classes had let our for the weekend. It spread to Bel Air High early Tuesday morning and then on to the council meeting, as several teachers said they planned to keep up pressure on county and school officials to address inequities in salaries and other economic issues.
Anthony Blackburn, an English teacher at Bel Air High, notified local media via e-mail Monday evening that "many" teachers at his school planned to begin a "working to rule" policy beginning Tuesday morning.
"What this basically means is that these teachers will begin to follow their contracts to the letter of the law," Blackburn, who used his Harford County Public Schools e-mail account, wrote. "These BAHS teachers are choosing to comply to the exact language of their contracts in response to several instances over the past several years of HCPS violating this same contract and not negotiating with the HCEA in 'good faith.'"
"These teachers will be entering school at 6:50 a.m. to begin the duty day, and leaving the building at 2:20 p.m., as a group," added Blackburn, whose e-mail also said he is the school's online newspaper adviser.
Sure enough, just after 2:20 p.m. a group of about 40 teachers walked out of the school together. According to http://www.hcps.org, Bel Air High has 101 classroom teachers.
Among those walking out were Mike Von Volen and Jason Taylor.
Von Volen, a fourth-year teacher, said the walk-out was a result of a culmination of things — the second half of the county bonus plan being revoked, an extra work day in dispute between the teachers union and school officials and the lack of raises for a fourth year.
The extra calendar day for teachers, Von Volen said, is "the straw that broke the camel's back." He also noted that he still makes the equivalent of a first-year teacher's salary.
Taylor, who has taught at Bel Air High for 10 years, said he fears the lack of compensation in recent years will "drive talented [teachers] away from the profession" or to other counties.
"Students and student activities will [likely] suffer," Von Volen said, as a result of teachers arriving and leaving when their contracts dictate. "But you have to make a stand at some point."
Taylor added that he and the other teachers "do everything we can for the kids," but the "people who pay our wages" don't understand that.
"It stinks," Taylor said. "I love my job and I love my students."
Supervising clubs and other extracurricular activities, which Von Volen said make the teacher "more connected to the community," will stop as well since the majority of them occur after school hours.
When asked how long the "working to rule" policy will be followed, Von Volen said: "As long as it takes until we're recognized."
The teachers intend to adhere to the policy for the rest of this school year and possibly into the next, he said.
Ring Factory march
At the peak of the first protest, shortly after 4 p.m. Friday, about 100 teachers, some holding signs reading "Fund public education" and "Save our schools," gathered along sidewalks just off school property at Ring Factory Elementary, just south of Bel Air.
The majority of cars that drove past the picketers honked in support of the teachers.
One of those participating in the protest, Seth Ranneberger, a third-year teacher at Patterson Mill High School, said he is about to get second job to support his family.
"It's a little bit of a struggle," Ranneberger said. He commented that it's becoming difficult paying the family's bills.
Cayce Thomas, a first-year teacher at Edgewood Middle School, said she joined in part because she feels like longer serving teachers in particular are being unfairly treated.
"It's not fair they're getting paid the same amount as I am," she said.
Thomas said she was proud of Ring Factory for making a stand.
Sharon Oliver, who has taught 14 years at Edgewood Middle, said teachers are "feeling like they're treating us like second class citizens," referring to the county government.
The county and school system continue to raise the bar as far as yearly goals and assessment scores, Oliver said, but do not adequately compensate the teachers.
"Morale is low" among teachers and they don't feel appreciated, Oliver added.
Dru Herbert, who has taught at Bel Air Middle School for 15 years, said the protest is "only going to get bigger."
Harford County Executive David Craig doesn't make education funding a priority, Herbert said.
Those joining in the protest came and went as they pleased. Only 50 to 60 were left by 4:30.
"This isn't over," Randy Cerveny, president of the Harford County Education Association, the union representing the teachers, said.
Cerveny, who organized the Ring Factory protest the previous evening, said the teachers are "planning to do what they have to do" and are "tired of working for free."
Threats to leave
The union leader said Craig, a retired teacher and school administrator, isn't making public education a priority.
"If education is not funded adequately," Cerveny said, "[teachers] will find other jobs elsewhere," such as Cecil or Baltimore County.
Cerveny and independent financial consultant R.J. Pellicoro appeared before the county's board of education May 21, presenting Pellicoro's report on where the county government could find money to fund salary increases for teachers.
The HCEA president described the board's response to the report as "disdain" and said the teachers are "upset" that the board did not advocate for them.
Earlier in the day, Cerveny said in a phone interview that the teachers were taking a stand not only against a lack of salary increases, but also the additional workday on the school calendar year.
Cerveny wouldn't expand on the latter issue, except to say it "has to do with lack of negotiations."
Teri Kranefeld, Harford County Public Schools communications manager, said in an e-mail Friday: "Negotiators for the Board of Education have twice met with representatives of the Harford County Education Association (HCEA) in the past week as part of court-ordered re-negotiations over the terms of its current (2011-2012) contract. As the original agreement, which would have included [cost of living increases] and step increases for teachers, was not funded by the Harford County fiscal authorities, the board was unable to agree to the HCEA's singular demand of a retroactive COLA of two percent and a one-step increase."
The e-mail continued, "The board reiterated its previously made offer of a paid bonus day on the last day of school for teachers (June 14th), but the HCEA bargaining team rejected that offer, which means that we cannot provide the bonus day for teachers at this time. The HCEA bargaining team made no other proposals besides the two percent [cost of living] increase and one step, retroactive to July 1, 2011. The board's negotiating team responded by indicating that there was no county funding available to pay for these demands, at which point the union chose not to bargain any further, having made no other proposals."
Because of this impasse, the last day for teachers this school year will be June 14. The last day for other school system 10-month employees, mainly support staff, will remain at June 13. Classes for students in kindergarten through 11th grade end June 12.
The protests and job actions by teachers are similar to a tack their union took in the mid-1970s, when the county declined to fund wage and benefits the union had negotiated with school officials. The dispute escalated into a brief, illegal strike in 1976, the only one in county history.
The union has been battling school and county officials for more than two years over wage issues in particular.
In addition to protesting salaries and the extra day they have to work, teachers at Friday's protest at Ring Factory and Tuesday's at Bel Air High said they were unhappy Craig withdrew legislation two weeks ago that would have given the second part of a one-time bonus to all county government and school employees in June. Craig cited the recent mandate from Annapolis that the counties must start paying for teacher pensions next year. He said the money for the bonus is needed for the new pension obligation.
County employees and some school employees received the $625 first portion of the planned $1,250 bonus in December. The teachers received theirs in March, after Cerveny and other union leaders had initially balked at taking the money in midst of the union's ongoing salary dispute with the school board over last year's contract.
Pending final approval of the 2013 county and school budgets, Harford's teachers and other local public school employees are looking at no raises for the fourth straight year.
This article contains a correction from a previous version. Anthony Blackburn is advisor to http://www.thebellarion.com, Bel Air High School's online newspaper.