We Made A Deal With Teachers, And We Should Pay


April 07, 1991|By Mark Guidera

When the Board of Education and the Harford County Education Association, which represents 1,500 public school teachers in contract negotiations, were close to signing a new three-year contract in November 1989, then-county executive Habern W. Freeman warned against it.

Freeman argued that the nature of government financing was fickle; no soothsayer could accurately predict whether three years down the roadthe county could afford the salary raises the contract called for --almost 23 percent over the contract's three years.

Freeman was panned at the time as an enemy of teachers and a cranky doomsayer.

As they say, he gets the last laugh.

School employees, the HCEA, the Board of Education and the school superintendent aren't laughing this week. They are between the proverbial rock and ahard place for that deal they signed more than two years ago.

Thefinal year of the school employees' contract is to begin in July. Init is a signed, sealed but undelivered 8 percent raise.

Freeman'ssuccessor, Eileen M. Rehrmann, has submitted her 1991-1992 budget, but it contains no such pay raise for the 3,292 school employees.

She has provided enough money to keep the school system operating status quo with just enough money added in, $2.8 million, to allow for hiring 86 teachers to reduce class sizes.

Burdened with plummeting revenue and unexpected population growth that requires expanded government services, Rehrmann says she was left little room to maneuver in the county budget.

The Rehrmann education budget proposal leaves to the seven-member Board of Education the hard choice of whether to make a stand. Do they trim the education budget to accommodate the contract raise? Not grant the raise at all? Or do they ask the County Council to restore enough money to cover full raises? How about partialraises?

While she hasn't said so, it's pretty clear why Rehrmann dumped the decision on the board members: She froze salaries of the county's government workers to avoid layoffs. So, politically, it would be suicide for her to go along with the school employees' hefty raise.

The HCEA has argued that a deal's a deal and the raise should be given.

They are, of course, absolutely right.

A deal is a deal. If you go around breaking your contracts, eventually word gets out and your credibility suffers.

We all loathe the business that puts off its creditors. Seems to me we should hold government to that same standard.

Rehrmann has made much ado about stuffing money awayin a reserve fund to show the suits at the bond houses in New York that the county is fiscally sound and responsible.

But that's not all the bond houses look at when you show up to borrow money in the bond market.

In fact, it's not even the first thing they look at. They look first to see if you make good on your debts.

Not giving teachers and other school employees that 8 percent raise won't bring ruination to the county's Aa bond rating, but there is something ethically unsettling about it.

For one, it doesn't square with Rehrmann's pitch that she wants Harford to have a record of financial responsibility.

You are financially responsible when you honor and pay your debts. What do you suppose would happen if the county signed a contract with a company to provide a service over three years and in the last year of the contract said, "Gee guys, we're not going to give you the amount of money we promised"?

I'll tell you what would happen. A lot of businesses would stop bidding on Harford government contracts. Too risky, they'd reason.

Don't get me wrong. I have no sympathy for teachers who squawk about pay, yet who have off at least a week at Christmas, a week at Easter and more than two months in the summer.

There's no question that teachers, to whom we entrust our children's futures each day as they hop on the school bus, should be paid a wage that reflects the responsibility of the job.

But in thiscounty and state, teachers do earn good salaries.

Maryland teacher salaries are now sixth-highest in the nation.

At $36,072, the average salary for a teacher in Harford this school year is significantly higher than the $24,076 average salary for the state of Maryland. That figure is based on the average weekly wage earned in Maryland inthe second quarter of 1990, the latest figures available from the state Department of Economic and Community Development.

And the salary for teachers with master's degrees plus 30 semester hours of advanced study (the equivalent of one year beyond a master's) in Harford this year is much higher: $46,000.

With these kind of statistics, and with other county government workers salaries frozen, teachers andthe HCEA may have a tough time getting public opinion behind them tomuscle the Board of Education into waging a battle with the council to get the entire 8 percent raise.

If granted, the raises would add another $7.3 million to the education budget.

Almost all of thatmoney -- at least $6.8 million of it -- is available in the Rehrmannbudget. You'll find it in what's called the surplus fund.

Rehrmann says it's hands off that money. Harford needs it to show the suits in New York the county is fiscally responsible.

But fair play tells us otherwise. We signed a deal, and we should pay.

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