Budget a sign teachers made point, some say

Ecker's spending proposal seeks nearly $228 million

Some credit work-to-rule action

Plan calls for more staff, computers and pay raises

Carroll County

January 26, 2003|By Jennifer McMenamin | Jennifer McMenamin,SUN STAFF

When John Leister joined a quiet protest at Oklahoma Road Middle School four months ago, the 32-year teaching veteran wanted his concerns to be heard and his workload lightened.

So he stopped coming to work early, and he stopped staying late. And like many of his colleagues, he took fewer papers home to grade.

Now, Leister and other teachers have received a signal that the Carroll County school system's first work-to-rule protest in two decades might have brought about change.

Even as union officials say that the organized job action appears to have run its course, Superintendent Charles I. Ecker has unveiled a budget proposal that includes millions of dollars to replace outdated computers, carve out more planning time for elementary school teachers and hire more clerical assistants -- all demands from disgruntled teachers.

"This doesn't seem like we're being handed the same old stuff with this budget," Leister said last week. "This is actually action being taken."

There clearly is not enough money to pay for everything in Ecker's $227.8 million spending plan. Acting county budget director Ted Zaleski told school board members last week that they can expect about $5.6 million less than Ecker has requested from county government.

But for some teachers and union officials, the inclusion of the teachers' requests -- even at this early stage of a five-month budget process -- was the strongest indication yet that the administration is intent on addressing some of the issues that sparked the job action.

"It will be a long-term process to see if we've really gotten deep-down changes made or just lip service," said Ralph Blevins, a veteran social studies teacher at North Carroll Middle School. "But it does seem, at least to some degree, that we were heard."

That was no accident, school officials said.

After teachers and administrators on a task force appointed after the job action listed recommendations for improving working conditions for teachers, Ecker issued a written response.

"There were a lot of words," Leister said, "but we didn't know how much backbone it had."

When Ecker began forming his budget request, he asked administrators in every department of the 28,000-student system to submit wish lists. The result was an exhaustive compilation of new positions and programs that exceeded the school system's anticipated budget by about $21 million.

"Internally, we pared away the things that weren't given the highest priority and deemed the most essential," said Stephen Guthrie, the school district's assistant superintendent for administration. "We used the written response [Ecker] gave the teacher task force as a guide as to what was essential."

Breakdown of funds

That meant that $1.3 million stayed in the budget request to replace school computers that teachers complained were outdated and unusable. The $186,000 to standardize the school system's computer software and to computerize elementary report cards -- both of which teachers had requested -- made the cut. And $253,000 remained to hire five technicians to repair computers more quickly than the one- to two-month waiting period of which teachers complained.

It meant that $308,000 was preserved to fill 17 clerical positions to take care of some of the administrative paperwork that teachers said was clogging up their day. It meant that $254,000 remained to hire seven health instructors who would take up some work from elementary school teachers and allow them more planning time.

And $545,000 survived to hire 15 classroom teachers to keep up with increasing student enrollments without forcing larger classes -- and more work -- on each teacher.

Other proposals among the task force's 47 suggestions were analyzed and cast aside, Guthrie said. Among them was a $330,000 recommendation to run more bus routes to give teachers an extra 15 minutes of paid time before students arrive in the morning.

School officials said they chose this process in crafting the budget proposal to recognize the relative importance that teachers placed on different issues.

"That task force was representative of teachers at large, and they brought these things to the table that they said they needed to successfully ... provide the best education possible for the students of Carroll County," Guthrie said.

Also included in Ecker's spending plan is $6.2 million for staff salary increases, which would honor the second year of two-year contracts with the five unions representing the district's 2,800 employees. Teachers agreed to the equivalent of a 4 percent raise over two years, after nearly a year of contentious contract talks.

Officials in the teachers union maintained that teachers' pay was not the leading cause of the work-to-rule protest.

Baltimore Sun Articles
Please note the green-lined linked article text has been applied commercially without any involvement from our newsroom editors, reporters or any other editorial staff.