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Education

Dispute flares over how to pay for raises for Baltimore County school staff amid teacher shortage

A dispute about a budget request to pay for raises for Baltimore County school employees erupted between the school board and the county council.

The Baltimore County School Board unanimously approved the $50 million midyear supplemental budget request Aug. 9 to fund faculty and staff raises for the next several years under tentative labor agreements with the system’s employee unions.

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The Baltimore County Council, however, must approve the request, and the school employee unions are now wondering what will happen even as the school system faces a staffing shortage.

Following the school board’s vote, Baltimore County Executive Johnny Olszewski Jr. published an op-ed in The Baltimore Sun calling the school board’s decision “irresponsible” and suggesting that the board needs to reexamine its own budget instead of asking for more funds from taxpayers.

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Olszewski wrote in his op-ed that the school board’s current plan for the negotiated raises would cost county residents $505 million in new spending over the next five years.

Councilmember Tom Quirk said he agrees with Olszewski, that even though the board is well-intended, it was “reckless” for them to just ask for more money. He said the board should have brought up such concerns during the spring budget hearings.

“You can’t just get money out of thin air,” Quirk said. “It’s taxpayer money.”

The council has declined such budget requests in the past, including a requested $33 million transfer in June. Some county council members said the denial was meant to hold the school board accountable for its failings in student busing — which left some students stranded — over the past year.

The school board has scheduled a special meeting for Thursday after the agenda for the Aug. 9 was cut due to illness-related absences. It’s not clear whether the board will discuss the budget supplement; it’s not on the agenda.

Cindy Sexton, president of the Teachers Association of Baltimore County, said she thought the county council would treat this request differently than the one in June. Following Olszewski’s op-ed, Sexton implored the school board and county council to work together for the betterment of students and schools.

“We should be more concerned for what happens if we do not properly fund our school system,” Sexton said. “Baltimore County will likely gain a reputation for having a school system not worth teaching in, which will drive families away. At that point, Baltimore County property values will be among the casualties of short-sighted fiscal and policy decisions.”

She’d previously called the negotiated raises — which would increase member pay by an average of almost $5,800 — “a historic win.”

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Courtney Jenkins, staff representative for AFSCME, which represents the schools’ food service employees, also urged the board and council to work together. AFSCME members would see their minimum wage go to $15 from $12.50, according to the pay scale approved January 2022, under the budget supplemental.

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The school board approved the budget supplement without a permanent source of funding. They said money for the systemwide raises will come from the county general fund until they identify a permanent funding source at a future date.

School board member Erin Hager said she voted for the budget supplement because current projections showed that a sizable surplus — mainly from an influx of COVID-19 relief funding as well as the staffing deficit — within the budget would cover the negotiated salary increases for three years.

“To me, that gives the county executive, the superintendent, the union representatives three years to come up with a sustainable solution to make this work in the long run,” Hager said. “And given that we are right now in a staffing crisis, I think that it was just the right thing to do.”

Sexton said the school system has lost more than 1,000 educators this school year, and that the system is headed into the new school year with more than 400 unfilled spots. With vacancy sitting around 5%, she said, students are about to come into empty classrooms.

Hager said her daughter just received her middle school schedule two weeks ahead of the first day. So far, three of her classes don’t have a teacher.

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Hager said she understands the long-term funding concerns from the county executive, but she said that’s part of his job — “figuring out how to pay for important things.” She said three years is “plenty of time” for the council and board to make these raises work.

“In thinking of my own life, my own professional life, three years is a long time to make sure that you can figure out a way to sustain something,” Hager said. “I am hopeful that they will reflect on the situation at hand, and that the implication that it will be rejected, will be reconsidered.”


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