No excuses

It was that sage of Springfield, Bart Simpson, a notoriously bad example for school children everywhere, who spoke the words that seem to have become an unofficial motto of Harford County Public Schools: The only bad excuse is no excuse.

Such a sentiment may be perfectly fine for a mischievous cartoon character, but in the world of adults who are not cartoons, there's no excuse for making excuses when things go wrong. What's called for is owning up to miscalculations, doing what it takes to make things right, learning from past mistakes and, above all, doing what you say you're going to do.

Too often this isn't what happens when the leaders of Harford County Public Schools are put in a tight situation, and this is glaringly true in the case recently decided by the Maryland Public School Labor Relations Board, which ruled that the Harford County Board of Education negotiated in bad faith with the local teachers union last year.

It was during those negotiations that the board and the union, the Harford County Education Association, came to an agreement that included salary increases for union members including a 3 percent cost of living adjustment, step increases and longevity increases.

It is possible to argue either side as to whether raises were justified given the weak economy and the hard hit finances of the state and county governments, chief funders of the school system. The board, however, accepted the argument that the raises were justified and made the deal.

Then the board promptly, and rather disgracefully, reneged on the deal.

Upon cutting the deal with the teachers union, the school system sought the necessary money to cover the additional cost for raises from the Harford County government, which provides roughly half of the school system's $400 million budget, and does so with almost no authority over how the money is spent once it is allocated. The request was for roughly $11 million to cover the cost of the raises, and the county government rejected the request.

The school system used the county's rejection of the request for the extra money as its excuse for not funding the raises it previously had agreed to. Every cent of that budget totaling in excess of $400 million, presumably, was necessary for expenditures other than the raises the school board agreed to give teachers. Believe that and you'll probably believe a dog-ate-my-homework story.

A few key bits of information bear pointing out. First, while $11 million is certainly a lot of money and an amount not to be taken lightly by any publicly funded venture, in a budget of more than $400 million it is less than 3 percent of the total. While reallocating 3 percent isn't necessarily something that's easy to do, it is hardly impossible, and that's what should have been done when the school system couldn't get the money elsewhere.

Two other points are worthy of mention, namely that enrollment in the county school system over the past decade has been flat or in decline, even as funding has increased at a rate that far outstripped inflation, and the school system has seen substantial growth in what could politely be called mid-level management.

In other words, the Harford County public school system has been doing less with more.

Given this background, it seems the school system's excuse for not living up to its word and funding raises it negotiated is even more lame than the old "I only had two beers," when somebody is caught driving drunk.

The school system has since appealed the bad faith finding entered by the Public School Labor Relations Board. This is nothing more than a bad decision following a previous bad decision. The good news is it's never too late to turn over a new leaf and live up to your word – unless you really didn't expect to keep it in the first place. In that case, there's no hope.

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