Political lessons

June 13, 1991

As the school year ends, the traditional, good-humored good-byes have been supplanted by anger in Howard County. Teachers are fuming over Executive Chuck Ecker's decision to cut their promised 6 percent raises and step increases from the budget.

Their frustration is understandable. But Ecker, faced with a multi-million dollar revenue shortfall, did not provide raises or step increases for any county employees. Moreover, the teachers' raises would have cost $8 million -- 16 cents on the tax rate on top of the 14 cents Ecker proposed to keep government running.

Council members could have restored the teachers' raises and step increases. But they were apprehensive about going to bat for teachers when other county employees weren't getting raises. They didn't want to take the rap for a 30-cent tax increase, either.

Now most of the teachers threaten a work-to-rule action when school begins next year under which they would no longer do "extra" work like participate in field trips or run after-school activities. Ecker has requested a meeting with the key players to try to defuse the conflict. The teachers seem willing to talk, but they want an agreement that the county will "honor the third year of contract." That would mean a 12 percent pay boost plus the restoration of step raises in fiscal 1993 (read: tax increase). Ecker, for his part, wants to avoid another large tax hike.

It may be an understatement to note that both sides now have a lot at stake. The teachers stand to lose public support and its concomitant political power with a hostile work-to-rule action. And Ecker, who runs a county that prides itself on excellent public education, has his political credibility on the line.

Compromise is obviously in the best interests of teachers as well as the executive. Also the public. A dose of fiscal reality and measure of good will on both sides will go a long way toward making it happen.

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