Howard County's teachers union is calling on public schools Superintendent Renee Foose to retract information shared in an email she sent to educators and school staff last week about the fiscal year 2016 budget.
Union leaders allege the email and a graphic circulated by the school system illustrating teacher pay raises are misleading and a breach of the rules governing the ongoing contract negotiations between teachers and HCPSS for next fiscal year.
In the email, sent to teachers May 27, Foose announced that the county's Board of Education had approved an operating budget of $776.3 million for fiscal year 2016, which begins July 1 and runs through June 30 of next year.
The budget contains $11.5 million for salary increases, she wrote.
"I am especially pleased to announce that you will see a pay increase in your first July paycheck," the email continues. "This increase will include a half step as well as a cash payment equivalent to a half step." (The email notes, however, that employees on frozen steps will not see a raise.)
The operating budget for fiscal year 2016 does include $11.5 million for a half-step increase, which will be paid as a lump sum to teachers on July 1. However, that money funds a final obligation in the one-year agreement that teachers and the school system negotiated for fiscal year 2015.
Paul Lemle, president of the Howard County Education Association, said he believes Foose phrased the email to be "intentionally misleading."
"It implies we have reached a salary settlement for next year," he wrote in a June 3 email to teachers' union members. "HCEA believes that the Superintendent's communication constitutes 'direct dealing'—an illegal effort to bypass HCEA in bargaining."
The union responded to Foose's email by sending a strongly worded letter June 2 threatening to file a complaint with the Public School Labor Relations Board, the state agency tasked with mediating conflicts between local school boards and school system personnel, if the superintendent does not "correct the misrepresentations" in her email and "immediately cease any interference with the negotiations process."
In a statement Thursday, school system spokeswoman Rebecca Amani-Dove said Foose's email "informed staff of raises coming next month, made possible by the $11.5 million that was included in the FY16 budget that just passed."
Lemle and the HCEA invited Foose to two town hall meetings for teachers on Thursday to answer their questions about the operating budget and her email.
Amani-Dove said the superintendent could not attend the town halls because "FY16 contract negotiations with HCEA are currently in mediation. It would be a breach of the agreement signed with a mutually agreed upon mediator for Dr. Foose to discuss ongoing contract negotiations with HCEA members at a forum."
Some 60 teachers showed up to the first town hall, where many expressed confusion and anger over the email, as well as what some said was an adversarial relationship between the school system's administration and educators.
Lemle encouraged them to share those thoughts with family, friends and neighbors. He also said teachers need to take their frustrations to the school board, who vote to approve the budget each year and play a hands-on role in crafting its priorities.
"Pressure on this board is what's going to change their minds," Lemle said.
School Board Chairwoman Janet Siddiqui did not immediately respond to a request for comment Thursday evening.
The fiscal year 2015 agreement between teachers and the school system, which expires on June 30, was negotiated after months of back-and-forth that ended just shortly before classes started in August last year.
As part of that one-year agreement, the school system agreed to give teachers a 3 percent cost of living increase as well as a full step pay raise. However, the approximately $24 million that HCPSS had budgeted for teacher salary increases in FY15 did not cover the cost of that final agreement.
As a result, teachers saw the 3 percent COLA and a half-step increase applied to their paychecks for the 2014-2015 school year, but the second half-step had to wait until the new fiscal year begins at the beginning of next month.
This year, Lemle said, the union is hoping for a 2 percent cost of living increase. The school system's budget director told the County Council in May that next year's budget has no room for raises in the FY16 contract.