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Arundel schools' raises in doubt

The Baltimore Sun

Anne Arundel County school officials say they might have to renege on promised raises to thousands of teachers, administrators and support staff.

Though County Executive John R. Leopold said he is trying to find ways to foot the $51 million bill for teachers' raises, schools Superintendent Kevin M. Maxwell said he doesn't believe the county can afford the $72 million price tag for all four union contracts. The county has issued a bleak budget forecast because of sharp cuts in state education aid and real estate tax revenues.

"It's my belief that I will not receive enough to fund the teachers' contract, let alone the other three," Maxwell said.

The move could create a credibility crisis for a system struggling to hire and retain qualified teachers and administrators, spark political fallout for Leopold in a state where public employee unions carry influence and draw retaliation from the more than 6,000 county teachers who say they are underpaid.

Since the early 1990s, at least two other area school systems, Howard and Carroll counties, have been stung after backing out of contracts because of funding shortfalls. In Howard County, the school board reneged in 1991 on the last two years of a contract that promised teachers annual 8 percent raises. Outraged, teachers retaliated for months by working only contracted hours and refusing to write college reference letters for students, a task they had done on their own time.

"These public employee unions are not only powerful, they're politically active," said Matthew Crenson, professor emeritus in political science at the Johns Hopkins University. "When they get crossed, union members get mad, they organize, and they can really grind things to a halt."

Anne Arundel County teachers expected the third-straight year of 6 percent raises. Administrators also were scheduled to get 6 percent, while support staff like secretaries along with cafeteria workers, bus drivers and custodians had forged contracts for 3 percent raises. The raises made up a large chunk of the $100 million increase Maxwell is seeking for school funding.

Though the contracts are contingent on funding being available, backing out of them could severely handicap the recruitment efforts of a system that loses about one in 10 teachers every year, half of them leaving in their first five years. More than a dozen administrators resigned last year to seek better pay elsewhere.

"When you renege on a contract when you're recruiting it hurts you," Maxwell said. "For how many years will we be plagued by 'You didn't fund the contract'? If you were thinking of coming here, would you trust us? Would you take a chance taking a lower-paying job in a district that failed to honor its agreements?"

News of the possibility had a local teachers union official warning of a range of retaliation including picketing job fairs to dissuade prospective employees from joining the school system and leaving immediately after the final bell, grinding to a halt hundreds of after-school activities they oversee.

"We would go back to the negotiating table and all previous bets are off," said Tim Mennuti, president of the Teachers Association of Anne Arundel County. "If this happens, you'll see the resignation [and] retirement rate would go right through the roof, as it did the last time this happened."

In July 2003, then-County Executive Janet S. Owens didn't fully fund the budget request and the system scrambled to renegotiate contracts and offer teachers a midyear 1 percent raise.

Leopold told local legislators last month that the governor's changes in a landmark education funding formula along with anemic housing sales will amount to about a $20 million loss in revenue for the county this year. Given that reality, Leopold has said the schools budget is "an ambitious request in difficult fiscal times."

Still, John Hammond, Leopold's budget director, said the county executive remains committed to providing the 6 percent raises for teachers, but he was careful not to promise the raises negotiated with the other three unions.

Through a spokeswoman, Leopold said yesterday that he has asked directors of every county department to cut their budgets by 5 percent to help pay for teachers' raises and other needs.

"Things are looking bleak," Hammond said, "but we're going to do all we can to provide those 6 percent teacher raises."

Despite the assurances, school officials announced this week that they are immediately eliminating 50 unfilled nonteaching positions, and cutting the budget for substitute teachers to help beef up their reserves.

More cuts might be imminent: The system is launching a wholesale review of its operations that might result in outsourcing jobs.

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