A proposed $223 million school budget in Harford County is far from being approved, but it already has stirred anger among some teachers dissatisfied with what they see as an inadequate pay increase.
In a county that consistently scores among the best on Maryland's annual school assessment tests, many teachers are demanding to know why Harford comes in 17th of 24 school systems in teacher pay, with an average salary of $37,940.
Some of those teachers are turning their frustration on virtually everyone in the Harford educational establishment, from their union leadership to the school board, which has been the target of angry letters, faxes and phone calls.
Stung by that reaction, school board President Robert Thomas recently sent a letter to every teacher in the system, and took them to task at a school board meeting for being "disrespectful" to the board.
"The message that we are receiving that I do not like is that because we are No. 2 in the state [in test scores] that the teachers should be paid accordingly for that excellence," he said, after the meeting. "The converse to that is if the scores then begin to fall, should the teachers then be paid less?"
The conflict is the first major dust-up in the tenure of Harford County schools Superintendent Jacqueline C. Haas, who took over last year after the dismissal of her predecessor, Jeffery N. Grotsky.
Haas said the dissatisfaction stems from a misunderstanding over how raises were structured in the contract. No teacher gets a raise of less than 2.7 percent, although raises vary depending on credentials and length of service.
"I think everyone is working very hard to rectify this," Haas said. "What we have seen in the past few years is that we are not as competitive in terms of teacher salary around the state."
The starting salary for a teacher with a bachelor's degree in Harford is $27,940. Officials have said low pay makes it difficult to retain teachers who could go to other systems and make more money. Baltimore County has proposed a four-year program to significantly increase the pay of veteran teachers to keep them in the system.
"It's sad to see some of these teachers in the classroom for five or six years, and then they move on," said state Del. B. Daniel Riley, an Edgewood Democrat and a teacher for 21 years. "In reality, it really is not that bad a contract -- but of course we would always like to do better for ourselves."
The most recent conflict was prompted by proposed changes in the contract that proponents say seek to even out inequities in the teachers' salary schedule.
Under that plan, the 1999-2000 budget would include $9.8 million for a salary package officials said would help make the pay scale more competitive with other metropolitan-area school systems.
Laura Copeland, president of the Harford County Education Association, the teachers union, said her organization had been lobbying for six years to change the pay schedule. The membership recently ratified the proposed contract 54 percent to 46 percent.
"The objective is to bring all of the salaries up," said Copeland, whose organization has between 1,600 and 1,700 members. "Our teachers work hard, and we want to make the scale as equitable as possible."
Many teachers have complained that the new system gives generous raises to some teachers who have little experience, while giving smaller raises to teachers with more experience.
"As a fifth-year teacher, I am not benefiting as well from it as other people will," said Marianne Clymer, a special education teacher at Church Creek Elementary School. "Some of us felt that we had received misinformation and that we weren't given enough time to assess the information."
Some teachers have criticized their union for negotiating a contract they say did not adequately represent their wishes, and say the union did not fully explain the complex method by which the raises would be calculated.
"I think teachers are leery about the next two years because in the past promises were not kept," said Patty O'Donnell, a media center specialist at Magnolia Middle School.
The school board will vote tomorrow on ratification of the contract, which is part of the budget. The budget will be forwarded to the county executive for consideration.
Pub Date: 2/07/99