County Executive James M. Harkins is working on a plan to boost the salaries of Harford County teachers, which have fallen in recent years from the middle of the pack on the state pay scale to near the bottom.
Since the school year beginning in September 2001, the starting salaries for teachers in Harford have failed to keep pace with those in most other counties. Harford has dropped from 12th place on a statewide salary list to 21st this year.
Only Allegany, Garrett and Somerset counties pay their beginning teachers less, according to the Maryland Negotiating Service, an organization made up of the chief negotiating officers from schools in the state's 24 government jurisdictions.
According to school, government and PTA officials, Harford's pay scale is making it increasingly difficult for the county to hire and retain qualified teachers.
There are also signs that it's beginning to have an effect on student achievement.
"It's not that our teachers are not getting raises," said Jonathan D. O'Neal, assistant superintendent of human resources for Harford County Public Schools. "But teachers are getting bigger raises almost everywhere else.
"In the past four years, Cecil County, which was below us, has caught up and passed us," O'Neal said. First-year teachers at schools on the opposite side of the Susquehanna River have seen their paychecks increase more than 18 percent since 2000, to $35,788 a year. During the same period, the starting pay in Harford rose 10.3 percent to $33,957.
Since early September, Harkins has been working behind the scenes with schools Superintendent Jacqueline C. Haas and members of the County Council to reverse this trend.
"Something needs to be done," Harkins said last week. "Teachers are the backbone of our education system. My goal is to put us in a position where we can hire and retain the best and the brightest" teachers.
"Our teachers have made a strong case that they are underpaid compared to other jurisdictions," he added. "Our goal is not to be at the top of the heap, but we don't want to be at the bottom either."
Haas welcomed Harkins' commitment, as did school board President Robert B. Thomas Jr.
Haas said that she and the school board have been pointing out the pay discrepancies for several years. "We've been saying, `We have got to do something about this.' And he has finally agreed.
"We appreciate that he has recognized this as an issue. And we appreciate his support," Haas said.
Thomas said Harkins' support is critical. "He controls the checkbook."
The school board president said low teacher salaries are "a sad commentary, but it's not because the board hasn't tried." He said pay raises negotiated with the unions representing teachers and other school workers in the past year were not honored by the county, which failed to fully fund them.
Thomas said Harford County is the seventh-wealthiest jurisdiction in the state, but that is not reflected in the quality of life and the standard of living of its teachers and education support staff.
"That has to change," he said. "These people are too critical to be left behind."
It's not just the new teachers who feel the financial pinch. According to Thomas and other school officials, the gap is throughout the pay scale. Teachers with 10, 15 or 20 years of experience can make considerably more money by taking jobs in Baltimore City or other counties, or by moving to Pennsylvania, he said.
"The gap widens as you climb the pay scale," said Benjamin White, a 38-year-old biology teacher at Fallston High School.
During a budget hearing held by the County Council in May, White said that he could earn between $5,000 and $15,000 more a year by transferring to another system in the area.
"What happens," White said last week, "is that teachers come here, get some experience and they go elsewhere. I see that a lot.
"I like Harford County," he continued, "and would like to stay here. But it is hard for Harford County to retain qualified teachers when they pay dirt-low wages."
Councilman Richard C. Slutzky, a Republican who represents Aberdeen and is a former Harford County teacher, said he was very grateful for Harkins' support.
"I think he is committed to this. I'm sure he would not have brought it to the public's attention if he didn't plan to do something about it.
"They are talking about two or three years to catch up," Slutzky said of the administration. "I hope it's sooner rather than later. This is a very serious situation, and I'm glad that Mr. Harkins has recognized it as a major issue."
Slutzky expressed his concern that the loss of quality teachers is the reason that student achievement grades, including SAT scores, "have stagnated in recent years."
"Teachers can cross the border to Bucks County [Pa.], only an hour drive away, and earn $20,000 more at the top of the pay scale," said Slutzky. "We have got to be more competitive. There is no question about that."