More realistic approach needed to teacher contract negotiations

The likelihood of a negotiating impasse between Harford County Public Schools and the local teachers union will no doubt drag out further any final contract settlement between the two sides. The stalemate may also eventually trigger a test of the state's new binding arbitration law for teacher negotiations, but we're still a fur piece from that unfortunate occurrence.

We do know the teachers were promised a 3 percent raise, a step increment raise for next year and another one to catch up from the one missed in the current year as salaries were frozen. That was back in January, however, and the deal was contingent on the county making available the millions of dollars needed to fund it.

To our thinking then, as now, the proposed pay increase for the teachers - and a similar raise for other school employees - was unrealistic. We won't go as far as to say it was irresponsible, too, but we have a hard time understanding how anyone involved thought this money was going to be available by any other means than a major property tax increase.

If the teachers' union leaders, the school administration and the unions representing other school employees thought the county executive and county council members were going to slash spending somewhere else in the county's $580 million operating budget, we'd like to know where ourselves, because it would be further evidence to support our long held belief that local taxes are already too high in Harford County.

We aren't saying the teachers don't deserve a raise, nor do we think the initial 3 percent settlement was outlandish for a group of employees who now face the prospect of having salaries frozen for three years. But under the current way these school employee negotiations work in Maryland, there's no obligation on the part of either side to take its case directly to the elected officials who ultimately control the flow of money before a deal is announced. As a result, there's also no incentive for them to forge agreements they have any actual responsibility to live up to.

In these tough economic times, it's folly not to have more communication beforehand with the people who control the money. All we have seen from this exercise is a lot of individuals and families being made unhappy and not knowing whom to believe — or whom to blame for being promised something they in fact had a very slim chance of actually receiving.

If the teachers' union has a way to find extra money in the school budget for the 3 percent deal, as its leaders now suggest, then let's hear it. Otherwise, everybody involved needs to come back to the table, shake hands and agree to be a little more forthcoming and realistic, and seek some counsel from the executive and county council, before they sit down to negotiate again next year.

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