"You have reached the homework hot line. Sorry, but the teachers who normally handle the phone have been furloughed. Please call Roger Hayden to express your concerns."
For a short while yesterday, before a caller complained, that was the message recorded to greet students who phoned the homework help-line the Teachers Association of Baltimore County runs. A lesson in diplomacy it was not.
Many Baltimore County teachers are depressed, wtih good reason. They're facing essentially the third straight year without any pay raise. About 4,000 more students are expected next fall with no more teachers to be hired. Some of them view the state's new student performance testing as political meat to feed those who believe that teachers themselves are not performing. The last straw was the school superintendent's recent plan forcing teachers to work days without pay to save money.
Whatever support county teachers have from those who agree the furlough plan is unfair, they will lose if they take their anger out on students and parents. If they want to convince the public and politicians of the need for higher taxes to fund schools, militancy will fracture the message.
The union held a childish "stand-in" Tuesday in which 300 people chanted outside the county executive's office. A wildcat offshoot of the teachers' union, calling itself the Federation of Indignant Teachers, thinks the union leadership hasn't been militant enough. Some leaders of this FIT group are rumbling about organizing another "sick out," similar to one held last week in which 300 teachers took off or called in sick in a futile attempt to paralyze the schools and make a point.
Ed Veit, president of the teachers' union, echoes the frustration of his 6,000 members, especially of the elementary school teachers, whom he calls the "Peace Corps of teaching." These are the educators who adore seeding the tiny minds in their classroom gardens and watching them grow; even they are fed up, he contends.
Other suburban counties are in financial straits. Their teachers and employees are upset at furloughs and unfulfilled contracts. But nowhere does the turmoil run in such a torrent as in Baltimore County. Is it a reflection of leadership? Or is it old-age pains coming to a maturing jurisdiction that is now experiencing many of the same social problems as the city?
Whatever the root of Baltimore County's political angst, the teachers, in trying to send a message, may come off sounding exactly like some politicians: The public be damned, they seem to be saying. We're going to look out for ourselves.