One of the most distressing aspects of Maryland's on-going )) budget crisis has been the irresponsible actions of supposedly responsible public servants.
The worst offenders have been teachers. Some have stooped to such appalling tactics that it raises questions about why they ever opted for careers in teaching.
Education is an honorable profession. It is also one of society's most important. But society has never rewarded teachers with huge salaries. The pay Maryland teachers receive today is adequate -- an average of $36,000 a year -- but hardly munificent. Given the stress and responsibilities of the job, it is not surprising some feel underappreciated.
But so do other public servants. Policemen and firemen, for instance, receive fewer dollars than teachers. Yet their commitment and dedication haven't waivered.
Some teachers, though, seem to have lost their ethical compass. Look at the egregious conduct of teachers in affluent Montgomery County, where the average classroom salary is $43,000. In recent weeks, teachers have:
* Engaged in job actions. This means no after-school work, no field trips, no conferences with parents and no college recommendations for high school seniors.
* Engaged in a despicable form of extortion with seniors desperate for them to write those college recommendations. Only if students showed evidence of having written letters of protest to county politicians about the budget cuts would teachers provide recommendations.
* Harassed the county council by flooding members' homes with phone calls and shouting down opponents at hearings. When council members dared object, the teachers union called their comments "irresponsible and slanderous."
* Teachers at one Bethesda high school refused to conduct classes for a day. Some students climbed on the roof of the school's field house, others wondered around the parking lot tossing footballs or chanting "no more budget cuts," and some just walked out and didn't return.
* Teachers at a Rockville middle school, as a classroom activity, incited students to write threatening, profane letters to County Executive Neal Potter. The teachers then hand-delivered the letters to the county executive's office. One council members' reaction: "What must a teacher have said to provoke comments like that?"
Indeed. What must these teachers be thinking when they engage in such repugnant tactics?
The issue boils down to money -- for the teachers. The threat of having to take a cut is unthinkable for some educators, even during a deep recession. They show no qualms about propagandizing students or using kids as human shields to fend off budget cuts that could crimp their bank accounts.
Over the past decade, teachers have received the lion's share of new education funds from the state. Yet there has been no comparable increase in student achievement. Some are beginning to question if all these millions were misspent.
Until recently, school boards routinely gave teachers unions what they wanted. Superintendents, too, were content to push ever-higher pay for teachers. The growing political power of teachers unions left many local executives deeply indebted to them -- and in no position to oppose pay raises. Whenever any executive had the timerity to object, teachers simply denounced him for "political interference" in the schools.
Those days are gone. The continuing budget crisis has forced taxpayers and office holders to examine the money going into education. They don't like what they see.
Teachers oppose pay cuts to help balance county and city budgets. They want school boards to cut other aspects of school life -- even classroom materials -- to avoid furloughs. Or they want local and state legislators to increase taxes, even in the face of overwhelming public resistance to any tax rise.
What many of these educators forget is that local officials, facing enormous budget gaps, have been desperately trying to stave off the ultimate pay cut -- layoffs. But board members are getting little help from some of the local teachers unions. The operative attitude is that teachers are untouchable; they should not be affected by the budget crunch.
Others in the private sector haven't been as fortunate. Think how many of the tens of thousands of laid-off workers would jump at the chance to keep their jobs if all it meant was a few days' furlough.
Catherine Burch, who chairs the Prince George's County Board of Education, put the matter in perspective, after the board voted, with great reluctance, to shut schools for three days in February.
"I'm sorry we had to do it and I'm sorry our employees had to be hurt," said Ms. Burch. "But it's not as painful as losing your jobs. At least nobody will bleed to death."
Given these tough times, retaining one's job is a major accomplishment. It is a bonus when your job also offers vast personal rewards. Teaching is such a profession. Regardless of reductions to school budgets, regardless of salary cuts, teaching remains an enormously challenging and fulfilling vocation.
We may have to revert to larger classrooms, fewer frills and lower pay. But teachers aren't working in sweat shops or being asked to take vows of poverty.
They have a big advantage over the rest of us: every time they walk into a classroom, they know one of society's most exciting opportunities awaits them: teaching. Shaping young minds. Educating future adults. Sadly, some teachers, in their pursuit of monetary rewards, have forgotten this home truth.
Barry Rascovar is deputy editor of the editorial pages of The Sun. His column on Maryland politics appears here each week.