Volunteerism boycott by teachers would be misguided

THE OBSERVER

May 03, 1992|By Mark Guidera

The call by the county teachers union that teachers refuse to volunteer for school-related after-school activities in the fall unless they get salary raises is a misguided protest.

To the executive board and the 50 school union representatives who adopted the resolution last week, the boycott of volunteerism may seem dutifully symbolic. But the union has put the proverbial cart before the horse here.

Before it stirs protest among its membership, it should either make a convincing public case to Harford taxpayers and elected officials that budget money is available to shift and support the pay raises or make specific suggestions for raising revenue to pay for the salaries.

It may be true, as the union has argued, that teachers deserve the raises and that, because they negotiated a contract in good faith, they are due them.

But the reality of the day is that the county is sailing rough economic waters that calls for keeping the sails trimmed tight and for sacrifice by all county employees. To avoid layoffs or furloughs, the county executive has proposed freezing all county government salaries for the second straight year.

The budget proposal calls for an increase of about 1.3 percent in the general operating budget, to $142.8 million, from the current fiscal year's $140.9 million.

The county Board of Education is getting the largest single outlay -- $76.3 million, or 53 percent of the budget. That's about $2.7 million more than the county gave the school board last year. That entire increase would be used to hire teachers for a new Route 543 elementary school and a new Fallston middle school, both scheduled to open in 1993.

With county revenue flat and a flood of new students heading into county schools, the priority has to be hiring new teachers and trying to ensure that ones on the payroll don't suffer furloughs and layoffs.

The county executive's proposal does this masterfully in a year when teachers in other counties, like Baltimore County, face furlough days. Many Harford taxpayers are aware of the bad economic ripples hitting other county governments.

So this protest won't serve to endear the public to teachers who argue that the county should do anything possible to ensure their salary raises are funded.

Besides, for a union to advise its membership what it should or should not do after working hours oversteps the bounds of the union's role.

This latest job action also runs the risk of stirring parents' ire toward teachers, who will be the ones telling parents and students that they won't chaperon the school play or tutor struggling students as a sign of "protest." Instead of these symbolic protests, the union would do better to take a direct approach and state how it proposes altering the proposed budget so that its membership can get the raises. It should also tell us why its members and not any other county employees should get the dough.

Christine Haggett, the Harford County Education Association president, says the union's fiscal analyst has determined that money is available in the executive's proposed budget to pay for the raises. He'll be issuing his report to the union's executive board next week.

The union wants its members to get 3 percent cost-of-living raises and two step raises negotiated in a contract this past winter.

The most likely target for gleaning most of the $5 million needed to pay for the package is the $7.1 million reserve fund the executive has proposed in the 1993 budget, which kicks in July 1.

jTC It's either that or the council has to start trimming department line items or raise taxes.

Tapping the reserve fund may seem alluring to the council to assuage the union's outrage that their salaries will remain flat another year.

But it could prove a costly financial management mistake in the long haul, damaging the county's excellent bond rating and setting a precedent for spending reserves on recurring costs.

Former County Executive Habern W. Freeman, the first Harford county executive to aim for building surpluses, has said that salaries and other budget items that would repeat in ensuing years should not be supported by fund surpluses.

And virtually every economist advising government officials these days is saying the first law of good fiscal management is this: Build a reserve fund to be used only in dire emergencies.

The average teacher salary in Harford is $36,072. The pay range for teachers is $24,583 for a teacher with a bachelor's degree on the first salary step to $43,300 for a teacher with a master's degree plus 30 study credits.

None of those salaries is unreasonable in today's turbulent economic times. Unless the HCEA can present a case that the proposed budget can be adjusted without significantly downgrading other county services or tapping the reserve, the teachers' protest should instead be a cry of thanks that their jobs are at least secure.

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