Baltimore County teachers battling with County Executive James T. Smith Jr. over a lack of pay raises stepped up their pressure yesterday, marching outside his office and participating in a job action by working to contract rules.
Leaders of the Teachers Association of Baltimore County said they arranged the rally outside the county courthouse in Towson to bring attention to the union's push for at least a 3 percent cost-of-living increase.
"Today we have come together as a united team to strongly urge [Smith] to re-examine his past budget practices and budget priorities," Cheryl Bost, president of the union, which represents about 9,000 teachers, said during a news conference before the march.
"We believe that if he wants to retain the quality employees here in the county, he must understand that an increase is not only the fair thing to do, it is absolutely the necessary thing to do."
Smith said yesterday evening that he respects the teachers association but added, "I have to look at more than just one slice of county's responsibilities. These are tough economic times, and everybody's feeling it."
Smith said the budget will include $12 million for longevity and step increases for some teachers.
Bost said an overwhelming majority of the county's teachers participated in yesterday's work-to-rule protest, putting in only the seven hours that their contract requires, taking a duty-free lunch and using all of their individual planning time.
The job action was scheduled to coincide with the first day of Maryland School Assessment testing for students in grades three through eight. The results of the test are used to determine whether students are meeting state and federal standards.
The union asked teachers systemwide to participate in the work-to-rule protest for the one day, but teachers at some schools - including Perry Hall Middle School and Catonsville High School - plan to extend the protest to other days, Bost said.
During yesterday's march, Bost said the county loses nearly 1,000 teachers annually to other school systems, retirement and other professions.
"Increasing workload and testing demands, the cost for continued education to maintain certification, combined with noncompetitive salaries, are key reasons for our high turnover rate in Baltimore County," she said.
Union leaders began organizing the rally and the work-to-rule job action after the school board approved last month a proposed $1.18 billion operating budget for the fiscal year that starts July 1 that does not include an across-the-board raise for teachers.
Bost has said that without an across-the-board pay raise, more than 20 percent of the teachers - the county's most senior - will receive no increase and that an additional 20 percent will take a cut after paying more toward pension and health care expenses.
School system budget officials have estimated that a 1 percent raise for all teachers would cost about $5.2 million and that a 1 percent increase for all employees would cost about $7.9 million.
The school system receives much of its funding from the county, which has maintained that because of declining revenues, no county employees will receive cost-of-living increases in the next fiscal year.
However, a fact-finder - in making recommendations in unrelated contract negotiations between the county and two other local unions - concluded that the county can afford pay raises for its employees.
The county has rejected most of the fact-finder's recommendations, and the unions are seeking nonbinding arbitration to help resolve the dispute.
Kathleen Luby, a third-year Baltimore County teacher, said she moved last fall from the county to an apartment in the city with a roommate because she was feeling the pinch of a rent increase.
Michele Woods, who has taught in the county for 15 years, said she can't afford to continue spending up to $50 a week on classroom materials while car, gasoline and utility costs rise but her pay remains stagnant.
The two teachers were among the hundreds marching yesterday, waving placards with messages such as "Salaries Down, Teacher Workload Up, You Do The Math" to protest the lack of pay raises.
Woods' son, Antonio Pinto, a 10-year-old fifth-grader at Chadwick Elementary, joined his mother for yesterday's march. He said he wishes he had more time to spend with his mother after school but that the demands of her work keep her busy well into the evening.
"I'm here to support my mother in her struggle as a teacher," Antonio said. "This affects us a whole lot because she works so hard to put new supplies in her classroom."
Woods said that buying resource and incentive materials for her students can be expensive.
"We invest a lot of money into our classroom," said Woods, who teaches at Chadwick Elementary. "A pay raise for us is an investment in our children."
Luby, who teaches at Chapel Hill Elementary, said she has been tempted to return to her home state, Pennsylvania, where teachers earn more and have a more lucrative pension plan.
"I can't afford to teach here much longer," she said.