Harford County teachers and their supporters packed the Board of Education meeting room in Bel Air Monday evening as one teacher after another pleaded with the board to fund salary increases.
Those pleas came three days after Harford County Sheriff Jeffrey Gahler announced he would match $500 raises for his full-time employees, giving them $1,000, as proposed by Harford County Executive Barry Glassman, while also providing smaller raises for temporary and grant employees in his agency.
With the council in the midst of its review of Glassman's budget, the annual back-and-forth about how much money the county is giving to the public school system reared its head once again, as teachers complained about years of not getting the salary steps that are part of their contract because school system budget requests have not been fully funded by the county.
Thirty-two teachers, parents and even a former teacher were signed up to make comments on the salary issue during the school board meeting in Bel Air.
Melissa Fonte, an eighth-grade language arts teacher at Bel Air Middle School, cited the school system motto, "Inspire, prepare, achieve," in her remarks
"I feel that as teachers in this county, we do an excellent job carrying out that mission of inspiring, preparing and having our students ready to achieve," she said.
Fonte referred to school officials' recognition, earlier in the meeting, of the faculty and administrators of Magnolia Middle School, which has been designated as a 2015 Maryland School of Character.
"I ask that all of you board members make the right decision that shows the depth of your character by honoring the teachers' contract," she said.
The meeting's public comment period, which is usually short, with just a handful of speakers, continued for more than an hour.
Teachers painted a dire picture of their colleagues either leaving Harford County for higher pay in neighboring school districts or leaving the profession all together, of plummeting morale and increased instructional demands coupled with shrinking daily lesson planning periods.
They also talked about salaries for teachers in Harford not keeping up with surrounding jurisdictions, noting their counterparts in counties such as Baltimore and Cecil make thousands of dollars more each year.
Teacher George Curry said school officials have "talked the talk," but they have not "walked the walk" concerning funding for salary steps.
"They're walking the walk to Baltimore County, Cecil County, Anne Arundel County, Baltimore City, Pennsylvania, the private sector," Curry said.
There are approximately 3,000 teachers in the Harford system out of 5,256 total employees, according to the HCPS website.
Teachers stressed repeatedly their love for their students and their chosen profession, and several were in tears as they described difficulty paying bills or their fears about losing teachers who have helped their own children.
"The reality is, over the last several years, out of nearly half a billion-dollar budget, the people in this room can't scrape together about $6 million to honor the contract that you made with your workforce," Curry said.
Teachers have not received salary steps for five out of the past six fiscal years, even though school system leaders have included salary increases in their annual funding requests to the county, based on negotiated contacts with the teachers' union.
All of the pay increases in recent years have been based on requested increases in county funding that haven't materialized because the county executive and county council didn't meet the requests.
The school system's $451 million operating budget request for fiscal 2016 includes a $16.5 million increase in employee salaries, all of it included in the $24 increase in funding requested from the county.
Glassman, however, approved a $4.5 million increase for the school system and said $3.1 million should be used to raise teachers' base pay by a minimum of $500, if not $1,000, which he is proposing for county government workers. He also urged school officials to match the funding he is proposing, so their other employees can get at least $500 raises, if not larger.
Other teachers who spoke to the board said school system leaders should make salary increases a top funding priority and then design the remainder of the annual budget.
They proposed extreme changes, such as cutting 25 percent of expenses, closing under-used schools and consolidating student bodies, and getting rid of sports and extracurricular activities, anything not related to instruction.
Fatima Petersen, a fifth-year music teacher who works at Harford Technical High School, said she switched to teaching from a career in human resources "to follow my passion."
"Harford County was sold to me as an amazing county to teach in by a veteran teacher who had taught here for 30 years," Petersen, who is also Harford Tech's chorus director, said. "She guaranteed I would have the most wonderful experience."
Petersen said she is "very happy" with her school, but she makes less as a 35-year-old teacher with multiple college degrees than when she was a 22-year-old human resources assistant.
"I am pitied upon for working at HCPS," she said. "I really want to do my job as a teacher; I really want to make Harford Tech have an amazing music program, which I'm very passionate about."
Petersen said she wants to give her students "a basket of resources" with more opportunities to learn and perform music.
"I am torn, though," she said, citing her salary concerns. "I feel like an idiot, I feel like a joke to so many people!"
Sheriff's employees raises
Gahler informed all Sheriff's Office employees by email Friday that most full-time employees will be receiving raises of $1,000 in the new fiscal year that begins July 1.
The email to the agency's 536 full-time and 71 temporary and grant employees explained he plans to match Glassman's funding earmarked for $500 raises for full-time sheriff's personnel.
Gahler went a step further and said a provision will be made for pro-rated raises for the temporary and grant employees, including the eight security staff who are being transferred from the county administration and will become temporary employees under the sheriff.
"As the Sheriff's Office moves forward with its allotted budget and after careful review, I am pleased to announce that we will be able to commit to the salary enhancement that matches the proposal offered by Mr. Glassman," Gahler wrote. "Additionally, it is my intent to extend a proportional salary enhancement to all of our temporary and part-time employees."
The cost of the proposed raises will be $798,625, according to a spokesperson for the agency, which breaks down to $352,561 from the county and $352,561 from within the sheriff's budget and $93,507 for the temporary employees, also from the sheriff's budget.
"Sheriff Gahler feels strongly about extending salary enhancements to all HCSO employees, regardless of their job classification," spokesperson Cristie Kahler said. "After careful consideration of the proposed budget, the sheriff is confident that, if the budget is passed by the county council, he can include all members of the Sheriff's Office, as we work together as one agency."
According to the Sheriff's Office, among the full-time employees are 287 sworn law enforcement personnel, 140 sworn corrections personnel and 109 civilian employees. The total budget proposed for the Sheriff's Office in FY2016 is $71 million.
Senior officers, including the colonel, major and jail warden, will not get raises, Kahler said, and none of the increases will be based on an employee's performance reviews.
Gahler cautioned in his email that full funding for the proposed raises won't be set until after the county council completes its own review of the budget and passes it. The council is scheduled to review the sheriff's budget on May 6.
The sheriff's email on the raises came a few days after the president of the Harford Deputy Sheriff's Union complained in a news release that the deputies' pay has been lagging for eight years because their step raises tied to years of service have not been funded.
Tim Impallaria, the union president, warned that failure to address the step increase issue could result in experienced deputies leaving for other law enforcement agencies in the region where step raises have been funded and they can make considerably more money than they can in Harford.
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He said in a later interview, however, that the $1,000 raises proposed for next fiscal year "are a step in the right direction" and he hopes the step increment raises "will be considered in the future."