The leader of Harford County’s most influential public employees union will be stepping down at the end of this month.
Ryan Burbey has led the Harford County Education Association for the past six years. The association represents almost 3,000 classroom teachers and guidance counselors in collective bargaining with the county’s public school system.
In a recent interview, Burbey confirmed he is stepping down Aug. 1 after leading the union since 2012. He will be succeeded by the current vice president, Chrystie Crawford-Smick.
Burbey, 47, said he was out of release time with the school system, which meant he would either have to return to the classroom or lose his teaching position. He did not want to do that, but he also felt he couldn’t do both.
“This job takes a tremendous toll; it was time to move on,” he said in a recent interview.
Burbey will return to Aberdeen Middle School to teach language arts. He taught English at the school for nine years before taking a leave of absence to lead the union. He also taught three years in Baltimore City at the elementary school level before joining the Harford system. He lives in Aberdeen.
“I’m excited about that, ready for a new challenge,” he said about returning to the classroom.
Burbey was elected HCEA president in August 2012 following the resignation of then-president Randy Cerveny. He was later re-elected to a full term, which still has two years to run.
Before he became president, Burbey had been an HCEA director and one of the union’s most outspoken members, one often prone to bombast, traits that didn’t change when became the union’s leader.
He spoke regularly at Board of Education meetings, Harford County Council meetings and occasionally at local municipal government meetings, as well as at other forums in the county, such as budget work sessions and hearings.
He took over at HCEA during a period when Harford teacher salaries had stagnated under the previous county government administration, which had followed a significant raise for teachers and other school employees that the county funded in the mid-2000s.
At first, Burbey’s plea to let teachers recover lost annual step raises and make up ground on the counterparts in other area school systems did not take hold, but the situation changed dramatically after Barry Glassman became county executive in late 2014 and began providing additional funding for the school system earmarked strictly for teacher salaries.
Even with better funding support from the county, however, Burbey and his rank and file have had to fight continually with school officials to get what they have bargained for in contracts that come with the proviso that any pay increases are subject to funding being available.
That fight continued right up until the evening of June 11, when the school board approved the budget for the 2018-19 school year during a seven-hour session, making a controversial decision to leave funding for the teachers’ contract intact, meaning all will receive 2 percent cost of living increases and those who are eligible will get at least one step increase (another 3 percent), with a few getting another make-up step from the prior freezes.
Burbey gave what amounted to a farewell address to the school board during the public comment period early in the June 11 meeting. With his son, Wyatt, by his side, he talked about the difficulties he had been through the prior six years, but said they had learned a valuable lesson, “that you fight for what is right; you fight to a just cause and you don’t admit defeat.”
“He’s learned you get by with less; not a lesson I really wanted to teach my son … he’s learned you can find positive in the negative.”
Not unlike past years, Burbey criticized the board and school administration for this year’s budget machinations, telling the board, “You are picking a fight, a fight you can’t win, a fight you have already lost … in court … twice.”
“Every day I get an email about something [proposed in the budget] I haven’t even heard about, or from somebody leaving the system,” he continued. “It’s time to stop the nonsense, folks. You can dig your way out of Alcatraz with a spoon, but it’s better to blow a hole in the wall.”
“That’s all I have to say, and in a month and a half you won’t have to hear me anymore,” he added, “but it’s time that we’re all out of this. Everybody’s weary. Give us a break.”
Burbey’s tenure as union president hasn’t been without controversy.
In October 2014, school officials banned the union leader from all school buildings through the following June after a complaint from an employee that he had cursed at them while waiting to talk with a teacher.
The union filed a complaint with the Maryland Public School Labor Relations Board which issued a scathing opinion in April 2014 that found Harford County Public Schools had violated state labor laws by the ban. The opinion also found the claims about Burbey’s alleged conduct that led to the ban were groundless.
Earlier this year, Burbey touched off a controversy with a negative social media post about Republicans after several GOP members of Congress were injured in a train wreck on their way to a conference.
Burbey’s “karma” comment went viral on social media, prompting Republican First District Congressman Andy Harris to call for the union leader’s resignation.
He stayed, however, and says he’ll now retreat to the background and enjoy being a teacher again.