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Howard teachers say cost-of-living increase doesn't keep up

Howard County public school officials and the county's teachers union made little progress Monday after resuming contentious negotiations on pay increases for teachers in the coming budget.

Teachers and the Howard County Education Association have sharply criticized Superintendent Renee Foose's initial budget proposal, which includes a 0.5 percent cost-of-living increase but no step increase on the salary scale. Work sessions on Foose's $742 million proposal are scheduled to resume Tuesday.

HCEA president Paul Lemle said the union wants a deal with automatic step increases of about 5 percent a year for five years. That's what teachers received from 2003 to 2008, he said, but since then, "there [has] been no improvement in salary schedules."

Such a five-year plan would cost about $30 million a year, Lemle said, a boost he called appropriate for a system considered one of the state's best.

According to the Maryland State Department of Education, the current minimum salary for a Howard County teacher with a bachelor's degree is $45,971 — third in the state behind Baltimore City at $47,475 and Montgomery County at $46,410. The maximum salary for a Howard County teacher with a master's degree and an advanced professional certificate is currently $91,531 — again third behind Montgomery County's $98,905 and Baltimore City's $97,768.

Foose said Monday night that it's difficult to compare salaries by county and also said the school system is not likely in favor of a multiyear package.

"I think it's in everybody's interest to stay with a one-year [contract]," Foose said. "We really don't know, from year to year, what the financial picture looks like. If we have another recession, another housing market bubble, everything can impact the financial picture. It would be best to negotiate yearly."

She declined to elaborate on the negotiations, except to say: "In general, we all agreed that we all want to continue to collaborate and move forward."

Discussion of the salary issue has taken an adversarial tone. Teachers have been irked that while raises for them remain in question, board members will see increases. Last week, the county's delegation to Annapolis said it would sponsor a bill boosting school board members' salaries by $3,000.

At a Jan. 29 public hearing, more than 300 people filled the meeting room, many of them teachers wearing red in a show of solidarity, and holding signs with slogans such as "Keep your word," and "Fair pay now."

"What I had hoped for was a more collaborative endeavor," said Ann De Lacy, board vice chair and a former president of the Howard County teachers union. "What has happened has been filled with acrimony, and we've been misrepresented. We've been presented as people who don't care, and I just don't understand it. We have been as open as possible."

Last week, Foose attempted to reach out to teachers directly via a YouTube video in which she pledged the early budget proposal was intended only as a starting point.

"Historically, we have not put money in the initial presentation of the budget for salary enhancements," she said in the video, "but make no mistake there will be a placeholder embedded into the board's budget proposal to the county executive for salary enhancements."

Lemle said the video is helpful as discussions advance. He said he's happy Foose made "public statements that support the idea that her employees need to be compensated like the No. 1 school system in the state.

"My job is to approach public statements and try to turn them into negotiated agreements," he said. "We're going to work really hard to have rhetoric become reality."

Baltimore Sun Media Group reporters Liz Bowie and Sara Toth contributed to this article.


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