The 1990s haven't been an easy time to teach and live in Howard County.
Since the 1991-1992 school year -- when the board did not give teachers a wage increase that had been negotiated -- county educators say they've been struggling with small or no raises year after year.
Even last week's announcement that most Howard teachers will receive raises of at least 3.5 percent in the fall does little to ease their frustration and bitterness.
"The new agreement shows promise, but I think we're still terribly underpaid," Steve Schaffer, who teaches social studies at Owen Brown Middle School, said last week.
"This is a very demanding community with high expectations for education, and we're a part of the community, too," said Schaffer, a 13-year veteran of Howard's schools who, like many other teachers, regularly takes second jobs during the school year to make ends meet.
"We deserve to be paid enough so we can afford to live here," he said.
Marijane Monck knows firsthand about the cost of teaching and living in Columbia. With her salary as a fourth-year teacher at Talbott Springs Elementary School, she qualifies for a low-income discount at Columbia Association's pools and health clubs -- 50 percent off for residents making less than $29,100 per year.
"I'm a professional. How is that possible? It shouldn't be that way," Monck said.
For Howard teachers, the days of annual longevity raises and 7 percent cost-of-living adjustments -- together, they boosted salaries each year by 9 percent to 11 percent -- are memories from the 1980s.
The 1991-1992 school year marked a big change for county teachers. That's when the county was stung by a sudden revenue shortfall and the school board breached the second year of its two-year contract with employee unions.
Instead of a longevity increase and a negotiated 6 percent raise, salaries were frozen for the year -- not just in the schools but in county government, too.
"I was hired that year at one salary, and actually started at a lower one because they made the cut," said Mike Morris, who teaches eighth-grade English at Owen Brown Middle. "I'm only now beginning to catch up to that."
Since that time, Howard teachers' annual increases have been as much as 4 percent, but more often they've been much less -- at times, nothing for the top third of the county's teaching staff in terms of seniority.
The average Howard teacher's salary for this school year is about $41,000, according to the Maryland State Department of Education.
For Howard teachers with a master's degree and 25 years or more of experience, salaries have risen from $48,983 in 1992-1993 to $54,540 in 1995-1996 -- an 11 percent increase. During that period, the average salary in Howard increased 13.6 percent, according to statistics from the Howard County Economic Development Authority.
And these senior teachers did not receive a salary increase this school year.
Howard teachers with master's degrees and 18 years' experience in 1990 have seen their salaries rise by 12.9 percent through 1996 -- while the area's consumer price index rose 17.2 percent during the same time.
"When you do get the seniority, the county doesn't want to pay you for your expertise," said Talbott Springs kindergarten teacher Beth Schuster, who has taught 21 years in the Howard schools.
In their contract for the 1996-1997 school year, Howard teachers received raises that averaged about 1 percent. But more than one-third -- those with the most experience -- ended up with no raise at all.
Teachers' 1996-1997 salaries range from $26,915 for a beginning teacher with a standard certificate to $56,700 for a teacher with a doctoral degree and more than 25 years' experience. The beginning salary is set by the school board each spring and is not part of the union negotiations.
By comparison, teachers in nearby counties have continued to receive raises -- smaller than in the years before 1992, but still larger than those given in Howard.
That has meant Howard schools have slipped in the salary rankings, from consistently being among the top two or three counties in the state to about fifth or sixth. Top school officials have said they're worried how that will affect their ability to hire teachers in highly sought specialties.
"We really have not kept up, not only with the cost of living overall, but also with regard to other school systems," said Howard schools Superintendent Michael E. Hickey.
"If beginning teachers have a choice between Montgomery County and this system," said River Hill High School math teacher Rod Wallace, "I'd tell them to go to Montgomery in a minute because the pay difference is so great."
'Difference too great'
Twenty years ago, Wallace left the Montgomery schools for Howard. At the time, he took an annual pay cut of $1,400. The difference has now grown to $10,000 a year. "The difference is just too great," he said.
And the agreement reached last week with Howard teachers won't make up the difference.