Harford County teachers, many of whom have received no pay raises for two straight years, got the support of a powerful ally last week in their battle for more money: the county's superintendent.
"School business is people business," Superintendent Ray R. Keech said at a Bel Air Middle School forum for parents and teachers Monday.
"And as much as we need this, that and the other thing, it is a high priority with us to give teachers a salary adjustment."
Despite the worst budget crunch in years facing the state and Harford, Mr. Keech said, the county must find money for teachers' raises.
Jean R. Thomas, president of the county teachers union, agreed.
Teachers are still smarting from a wage freeze last year and the elimination of any across-the-board salary increase this year, Mrs. Thomas said. The county should make up that money in next year's contract, said Mrs. Thomas, whose union, the Harford County Education Association, began negotiating next year's contract Tuesday night.
"One year has to be a catch-up -- there is a whole group of people who are owed a step increase," she said. "For other teachers, they got nothing for the second year in a row."
Teachers, whose annual salaries average $35,642, got step increases and longevity increases this year.
But Mrs. Thomas said most of the county's 2,128 teachers did not receive more money. They had worked too long -- more than 15 years -- to qualify for a step increase, yet not long enough to qualify for a longevity raise. Teachers get longevity raises after 20, 25 and 30 years of service.
As part of a three-year contract, teachers received step and longevity raises in 1989 and 1990 as well as annual across-the-board raises of 7.6 percent and 7.8 percent. State budget cuts in 1991, however, cost teachers their 8 percent across-the-board raises as well as step and longevity increases.
In addition to more money, teachers want a limit on volunteer work they are expected to perform. In Montgomery County, Mrs. Thomas said, teachers are rarely expected to work evenings, and parent-teacher conferences must be during the day.
"Our teachers -- God bless 'em -- are the biggest part of the problem because they are so student-centered they will not do anything less than give their all," Mrs. Thomas said. "Principals are also very good at making their teachers feel guilty if they don't volunteer."
As teachers seek more money, Harford is getting much less from the state. The county is expected to lose about $6 million this fiscal year.
The state will trim $147 million from its 24 subdivisions, by eliminating a program that pays the employer's share of Social Security benefits for teachers and others.
Harford's school system, with a budget of about $141 million, accounts for about $5.4 million of state-paid Social Security. But County Executive Eileen M. Rehrmann said the county's loss will be distributed so the school system loses about $2 million.
Mrs. Thomas, however, said she's worried the county will use the cut in Social Security as another excuse for not giving the teachers a raise.
Support for raises for teachers also appears to be growing among parents. Mark Walco, a member of the Abingdon Elementary PTA, said he worried the best Harford teachers would leave for school systems that pay more.