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Carroll teacher's union stages 'walk outs' to draw attention to contract negotiations

Carroll teacher's union stages 'walk outs' to draw attention to contract negotiations
Westminster High School teachers collectively walk out of the school building Thursday, Dec. 17 after dismissal to draw attention to to their effort to secure better compensation during contract negotiations. (DAVE MUNCH/STAFF PHOTO / Carroll County Times)

Carroll County Public Schools teachers spent the days leading up to the winter break collectively walking out of school after the official end of their work day to show support for their union as it negotiates a new contract for its members.

Negotiations between the union — the Carroll County Education Association — and the school system have been underway since November. The parties have met six times and are expected to again sit down at the negotiating table once or twice more before reaching a tentative agreement, union representatives say.

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Under the current contract — which began July 1, 2013, and is up June 30, 2016 — teachers received bonuses the first two years and for the current school year, they saw a 2.5 percent cost of living adjustment in addition to a 1 percent bonus, according to Teresa McCulloh, CCEA president.

However, bonuses do not help teachers with retirement, McCulloh said, as teachers pensions are calculated using a teacher's highest five consecutive years of salary multiplied by the number of years and months of accumulated creditable service.

That is why the union is pushing for an increase in salaries and compensation for teachers, she said.

"We have teachers preparing resumes," McCulloh said. "We're frustrated. The morale is low. We've lost several thousands of dollars toward our earnings, pensions and retirements.

"Our teachers still have mortgages, car payments, college loans to pay, and that has really been difficult with having a salary frozen for seven years."

Carroll is the only county in Maryland where teachers are six steps behind in salary placement, which means that steps on the salary are not commensurate with experience as they typically are in other jurisdictions.

Although the school system's annual starting salary received a bump this year from the lowest in the state at $40,400 for a first-year teacher with a bachelor's degree to $43,000, many more experienced teachers have remained on Step 1. For example, all new hires with a bachelor's degree and one to eight years of experience are placed on Step 1 of the salary scale, according to Chantress Baptist, supervisor of human resources for CCPS.

The teacher salary scale was also compressed this year from the previous year from 22 steps to 20 steps, and therefore many teachers slid two steps down from where they were before.

Ryan Heilman, a teacher at Manchester Valley who joined the CCEA's contract negotiations team last fall, said teachers took issue with salary compression this year because it wasn't clear to them how it would affect their placement on the scale.

"As a teacher, we knew we would be going from X number of steps to X number of steps, but it wasn't clear that we would actually go down a step," Heilman said. "So in other words, there was no clear crosswalk between the old salary scale and the new salary scale to say that you were at [Step 6] before and now you're going to be at 4."

Teachers, he said, were under the impression they would be seeing raises, but were disappointed to learn they would actually only be getting the COLA and one-time bonus.

"It really upset a lot of teachers, including me, last year," Heilman said.

The salary schedule has been compressed in the past. In the 2000-01 school year the system had a 27-step salary scale, and in the 2005-06 school year it was compressed to 26 steps. In the 2009-10 academic year, the system moved from a 25-step scale to a 24-step scale. In the 2012-13 school year, the scale was compressed to 22 steps.

"Overall salary compression and reducing steps is not a bad thing, but it depends on how you do it," Heilman said, adding that in some cases it could allow teachers to get to the top of the salary scale more quickly.

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"It's just unfortunate when the contract was done three years ago it wasn't real clear what exactly was occurring and how it was working, and there wasn't a crosswalk ... to go along with it," he said.

Heilman said lessening teacher workload is also a focus for the union's negotiations team.

Most teachers in the system work 7.5 hours each day for 190 days each year. But they often put in additional hours to chaperone dances or write college recommendations for students, which they don't get paid for, Heilman said.

"To not be compensated for those things is really an issue," Heilman said, acknowledging that teachers are compensated for coaching or for overseeing certain clubs. "There is just so many instances where they're spending their extra time doing something and not really receiving any additional compensation for it, when in another industry they would be."

At a Dec. 16 work session, the Board of Education indicated that CCPS Superintendent Stephen Guthrie should make employee compensation a top priority in his proposed fiscal year 2017 operating budget, which will be announced at the board's next meeting on Wednesday, Jan. 13.

"The bottom line is repeatedly we have heard that the focus, the commitment, the priority, is teacher salaries, but where is the money coming from? No one has given our commissioners a total amount of what is needed to increase our salaries and increase raises to come to the proper terms," McCulloh said.

"We had told our members that we will never make up the seven years," she said. "However, we are expecting the funding to make it right and put us in the right direction because anything else at this point is unacceptable."

Guthrie said in an interview that employee salaries have eroded since 2009 and that it will not be possible for the school system to provide salaries that are competitive with other jurisdictions in one year.

"We hope to work with our funding authorities to create a five-year budget plan that gets us back to competitive salaries," Guthrie said.

A presentation given at the school board's work session indicated it will cost the system about $5 million to provide one step increase and about $1.9 million for a 1 percent COLA for all employee classifications.

The union would not say with specificity what terms it will seek for members, citing an agreement to closed negotiations. Because negotiations are closed, per a request from Carroll County Public Schools, both parties involved are limited in the information they can divulge.

"We can generally say that we're talking about salary and we're talking about compensation and we're talking about workload, but I can't say specifically we've already decided this or I've decided that — I can't do that," Heilman said. "There are some counties that do open contract negotiations, but we agreed in the ground rules this year to do closed negotiations."

Guthrie said the school system's contract negotiations have been closed for about 15 years, because in the past negotiations were inhibited by posturing that prolonged the negotiation process.

"We believe that we can have more frank conversations in a confidential setting," Guthrie said. "In the past, when we were open there was a lot of playing to people who were watching and that got in the way of getting to the real issues."

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Once both parties come to a tentative agreement on the contract, the union must take it to their members for approval and the school system must bring the contract to the county Board of Education for a vote. Both groups must approve the contract before it is a binding agreement.

The next contract will begin July 1. Although the union does not yet know the end date of the contract, contracts are typically negotiated for a period of three years, McCulloh said.

According to the union's bylaws, Heilman said, once the union has reached a tentative agreement with the school system, the union will hold a large meeting and walk its members through the entire contract to ensure that they understand it before voting on the agreement.

"That's never been done before, and I think that's going to make a really big difference," Heilman said. "With the new team and the new president, they have really been stressing communication, and I think that's going to be important."

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