The Howard County school system and the union that represents most of its employees resumed contract negotiations last week on the heels of congressional approval of a federal stimulus package that is expected to influence the proposals of both sides.
Though the economy is in recession and state and county budgets are being squeezed, many members say the union that represents Howard teachers and school staff members should press for a pay increase.
"We're all suffering," said Karen Covington, a teacher at Long Reach High School. "I haven't had a raise in the past two years. I've been patient. I've been waiting. It should be moderate, but it should be something."
Union leaders say that a pay increase is needed if Howard County is to stay competitive with jurisdictions such as Montgomery and Calvert counties.
"We know that economic times are tough, but we think that this is an opportunity for us to mitigate the salary disparities," said Ann DeLacy, president of the Howard County Education Association. "We believe this is the way to maintain the stellar school system we have by attracting the best and the brightest."
DeLacy declined to say how large an increase the union would seek. This month, the HCEA had postponed further negotiations, saying that it needed to assess the effect that President Barack Obama's economic stimulus package would have on Maryland education funding. The union had met twice with school officials this academic year.
Sue Mascaro, the school system's director of staff relations and operations, confirmed that negotiations had resumed. "It's a slow process this year," she said. "A lot of people are taking a wait-and-see approach to see if the economic stimulus package will have an effect on funding."
Superintendent Sydney Cousin's proposed $658.9 million operating budget for fiscal 2010 does not include money for raises. If the system and the union cannot reach a contract agreement by Tuesday, when the school board is scheduled to approve the budget and send it to the County Council, an amended budget would have to be filed later.
"We can't delay the process indefinitely," DeLacy said.
DeLacy said that unions in other counties are also looking to the stimulus package for guidance.
Obama signed the stimulus package Tuesday that will provide $1.1 billion to Maryland education during the next two years. Most of the money - $721 million - will go toward protecting school programs, which will give the state flexibility as to how it is used. It is unclear how much of the remainder school systems will be able to devote to salaries.
At a recent meeting of union representatives for individual schools, Laura Mynaugh, a teacher at Triadelphia Ridge Elementary, said a pay increase is needed to counter increased personal expenses.
"Our taxes continue to rise," she said.
The HCEA represents 5,021 of the 7,860 employees in the school system.
Natalie Janiszewski, a teacher at Bonnie Branch Middle, said the size of the requested raise depends on the stimulus package. "If the funds are there, a raise seems fair and reasonable," she said.