Salaries, workload and equity among school employees are top issues the Howard County Education Association will bring to the bargaining table when contract negotiations for teachers and support staff begin this winter.
Three-year contracts for both groups expire June 30 - one representing about 4,000 certificated teachers, guidance counselors and psychologists; the other representing 1,600 employees, mostly instructional assistants.
In May, the association sent a form to its members seeking input for the negotiations.
For the teachers, their biggest concern is workload and sufficient planning time, said Joe Staub, president of the association.
High-stakes testing required by the federal No Child Left Behind Act and the school system's accountability program to accelerate the achievement of struggling students have increased teacher responsibility in recent years. In turn, that has increased the need for more planning time to write individual student improvement plans and attend numerous meetings, Staub said.
The current contract called for two more planning days, bringing the number of teacher workdays to 192 this school year. But Staub said the union would "like to see additional [planning] days after each marking period."
Another issue is how stipends are doled out among team leaders at each school level and among teachers. The contract doesn't specify how such stipends should be distributed, Staub said.
In general, high school department chairs and team leaders at elementary and middle schools receive stipends for their extra job duties, while related-arts leaders do not, Staub said.
Salary will also be a likely talking point.
"Salary is always a priority," Staub said. "We feel that Howard County schools are the quality school [system] we are because of the quality of the employees. We want salaries that attract and retain quality teachers."
A bulk of this year's $461 million operating budget is paying for a negotiated 6 percent pay raise for teachers and support staff members, who also received an additional pay increase due to job reclassifications.
During the budget process this year, school board members stood by the increase despite tight coffers - becoming one of two districts in Maryland to offer a 6 percent salary increase.
The board also approved higher starting-teacher salary scales that moved the school system to a fifth-place ranking in Maryland from ninth place. A new teacher with a bachelor's degree receives $36,556 this school year.
While acknowledging the school board's commitment and support, Staub said the union and the school system must continue to work together to keep salaries in pace to remain competitive, especially in hiring new teachers.
The education support staff negotiations team will be looking for equity for its members, said Dan Collins, a UniServ director for the Howard County Education Association, who assists in contract negotiations.
For instance, nurses and interpreters don't have paid holidays, unlike the instructional assistants, Collins said.
Howard schools Superintendent Sydney L. Cousin said he hopes to start contract talks in January, when the school system expects to hire a director of staff relations. This new employee will be in charge of negotiations and other employee-related issues, Cousin said.