County Executive James M. Harkins is working on a plan to boost the salaries of Harford County teachers, which have fallen in recent years from the middle of the pack on the state pay scale to near the bottom.
Since the school year beginning in September 2001, the starting salaries for teachers in Harford have failed to keep pace with those in most other counties. Harford has dropped from 12th place on a statewide salary list to 21st this year.
Only Allegany, Garrett and Somerset counties pay their beginning teachers less, according to the Maryland Negotiating Service, an organization made up of the chief negotiating officers from schools in the state's 24 government jurisdictions.
According to school, government and PTA officials, Harford's pay scale is making it increasingly difficult for the county to hire and retain qualified teachers.
There are also signs that it's beginning to have an effect on student achievement.
"It's not that our teachers are not getting raises," said Jonathan D. O'Neal, assistant superintendent of human resources for Harford County Public Schools. "But teachers are getting bigger raises almost everywhere else.
"In the past four years, Cecil County, which was below us, has caught up and passed us," O'Neal said. First-year teachers at schools on the opposite side of the Susquehanna River have seen their paychecks increase more than 18 percent since 2000, to $35,788 a year. During the same period, the starting pay in Harford rose 10.3 percent to $33,957.
Since early September, Harkins has been working behind the scenes with schools Superintendent Jacqueline C. Haas and members of the County Council to reverse this trend.
"Something needs to be done," Harkins said last week. "Teachers are the backbone of our education system. My goal is to put us in a position where we can hire and retain the best and the brightest" teachers.
"Our teachers have made a strong case that they are underpaid compared to other jurisdictions," he added. "Our goal is not to be at the top of the heap, but we don't want to be at the bottom either."
Haas welcomed Harkins' commitment, as did school board President Robert B. Thomas Jr.
Haas said that she and the school board have been pointing out the pay discrepancies for several years. "We've been saying, 'We have got to do something about this.' And he has finally agreed.
"We appreciate that he has recognized this as an issue. And we appreciate his support," Haas said.
Thomas said Harkins' support is critical. "He controls the checkbook."
The school board president said low teacher salaries are "a sad commentary, but it's not because the board hasn't tried." He said pay raises negotiated with the unions representing teachers and other school workers in the past year were not honored by the county, which failed to fully fund them.
Thomas said Harford County is the seventh-wealthiest jurisdiction in the state, but that is not reflected in the quality of life and the standard of living of its teachers and education support staff.
"That has to change," he said. "These people are too critical to be left behind."
It's not just the new teachers who feel the financial pinch. According to Thomas and other school officials, the gap is throughout the pay scale. Teachers with 10, 15 or 20 years of experience can make considerably more money by taking jobs in Baltimore City or other counties, or by moving to Pennsylvania, he said.
"The gap widens as you climb the pay scale," said Benjamin White, a 38-year-old biology teacher at Fallston High School.
During a budget hearing held by the County Council in May, White said that he could earn between $5,000 and $15,000 more a year by transferring to another district in the area.
"What happens," White said last week, "is that teachers come here, get some experience and they go elsewhere. I see that a lot.
"I like Harford County," he continued, "and would like to stay here. But it is hard for Harford County to retain qualified teachers when they pay dirt-low wages."
Councilman Richard C. Slutzky, a Republican who represents Aberdeen and is a former Harford County teacher, said he was very grateful for Harkins' support. "I think he is committed to this. I'm sure he would not have brought it to the public's attention if he didn't plan to do something about it."
"They are talking about two or three years to catch up," Slutzky said of the administration. "I hope it's sooner rather than later. This is a very serious situation, and I'm glad that Mr. Harkins has recognized it as a major issue."
Slutzky expressed his concern that the loss of quality teachers is the reason that student achievement grades, including SAT scores, "have stagnated in recent years."
"Teachers can cross the border to Bucks County [Pa.], only an hour drive away, and earn $20,000 more at the top of the pay scale," said Slutzky. "We have got to be more competitive. There is no question about that."
Slutzky, a former department chairman for health and physical education at Aberdeen High School, retired last year. He said his retirement benefits, which are based on his salary, would have been $250,000 to $500,000 more had he held the same position in Howard County's school system.
Haas said the loss of a teacher is also a waste of taxpayers' money. She said it's a huge cost to the system to hire, process and train teacher, and it's a major loss when they leave.
Tom Proffitt, associate dean of education at Towson University, agrees. Just how great the loss, he's not ready to say. He is hoping to complete a study within the next six months that will show the financial effect of a county losing a trained teacher.
In the meantime, he draws on a recent study in Texas, which put the cost of teacher attrition at $480 million over a three-year period.
"Even if Maryland's figure is half that amount," he said, "that's a lot of money that could be used to reduce class size, fund full-day kindergarten or pay for special education.
"Even if it was a fourth that amount, $120 million ... think of what we could do with $120 million," he added.
Harford County estimates that it would cost $1.5 million to give its approximately 2,700 teachers a 1 percent cost-of-living wage increase. The same increase for all school employees would cost $2.1 million.
It would be money well spent, according to Deb Merlock, a vice president of Harford's Council of PTAs. "We need the best teachers we can get, especially now, when students are being pushed to achieve higher standards of achievement."
Merlock said students coming out of college "see Harford County as a good climate in which to teach and live, but when they look at the salaries here it gives them ... pause."
She said, "It's hard to lure good teachers when they look at the pay here and see we're 21st on the list and they can go to the county next door that has the ninth-best salaries in the state."
Harkins said he is waiting for the results of a study on teacher salaries in Harford compared with those in other parts of the state before determining his course of action. The Singer Group Inc., a Reisterstown-based management consultant company, is performing the study. Its preliminary results are due in early January.
"I'm very optimistic that the Singer study will provide the road map to where we need to go," said Thomas. "The board and elected officials then need to find a way to get there."
Starting teacher salaries
The starting teacher salary in Harford County dropped from 12th place in 2001-2002 to 21st this year.
Rank County Salary
1. Montgomery $39,457
2. Talbot 37,000
2. Calvert 37,000
4. Prince George's 36,823
5. Washington 36,610
6. St. Mary's 36,577
7. Howard 36,556
8. Carroll 35,919
9. Cecil 35,788
10. Queen Anne's 35,631
11. Charles 35,451
12. Frederick 35,292
13. Baltimore 35,100
14. Baltimore (city) 34,973
15. Anne Arundel 34,691
16. Worcester 34,512
17. Kent 34,363
18. Dorchester 34,300
19. Caroline 34,158
20. Wicomico 33,960
21. Harford 33,957
22. Somerset 31,506
23. Garrett 31,208
24. Allegany 30,364
Source: Maryland Negotiating Service Fiscal year 2005