The Board of Education has approved a $155 million school budget fornext year and reversed an earlier decision to reject a teachers contract that includes salary increases.
The board voted, 6-0, to passthe budget and by 5-1 to ratify the teachers' contract Monday night at a meeting in which more than 300 people -- mostly teachers and school staff -- jammed a school auditorium.
The Harford County Education Association, which represents 1,500 out of 2,000 public school teachers, had threatened to sue the schoolboard for bad-faith bargaining after the board rejected the contracttwo weeks ago.
"Basically, it became obvious to all of us it probably would be a split in the board if the board members had maintained their position," said George Lisbee, school board president.
Anne Sterling, school board vice president, voted against the teachers contract, saying teachers could have walked away with a better deal ifthey renegotiated.
"I really thought if we had sat down again at the bargaining table, the teachers may have gotten some things that they did not get," she said.
With state and county money to fully fund the operating budget in doubt, Sterling is concerned that teachers may face layoffs in the future because their salaries can't be paid.
"I'm very worried that if these salary increases do go through as they have been outlined, we may face a very difficult situation of layoffs this coming year," she said.
School board member Keith Williams, who voted for the pay increase, said he also is worried the county will not have enough money to pay the teachers.
"I think it'sgoing to be very difficult to fund," he said.
The new teachers' contract is a one-year agreement that gives a 3 percent cost-of-livingincrease to all teachers as well as two raises for about 1,000 teachers.
Teachers will receive raises ranging from $215 to $1,276, depending on tenure and educational background.
The average teacher salary in Harford is currently about $32,000.
The current three-year contract expires June 30.
Christine Haggett, HCEA president, said the school board was overstepping its bounds when it looked for ways to cut costs.
She argued that the county executive and the County Council -- not the school board -- are responsible for funding budgets.
The school board had asked School Superintendent Ray R. Keechto reduce the proposed $155 million budget by 9 percent, or $18.5 million, citing the unfavorable economic climate and uncertain state revenues.
"Our feeling was they had done the job of other people rather than doing the job they should be doing, which is to present whatwas necessary for an excellent school system in Harford County," said Haggett.
Jeffrey Wilson, president of the County Council, said the school board made a mistake in rejecting the contract earlier and asking the school superintendent to reduce the budget.
What the school board should have been doing was to act as an advocate for education in the county, he said.
"They were taking an action which is really appropriate for fiscal authorities," he said.
"They were acting on presuppositions about what the state of Maryland will do, andno one knows what the state will do until mid-April."