How did a celebrated bonus for Harford County Public School employees turn into a holiday lump of coal for teachers and a hole in the stocking of the school board’s budget – in only four days?
The story begins with a one-time $1,250 bonus proposed by Harford County Executive David Craig, half of which, or $625, was to be paid before the holidays. Four of the five unions representing Harford County Public School employees agreed to sign on, but the Harford County Education Association (HCEA), the largest union and the one representing teachers, held out. HCEA President Randy Cerveny said that HCEA would not sign a memorandum of understanding accepting the bonus because, by law, the use of school funds had to be negotiated between the union and the school board.
With the Harford County Council set to authorize a transfer of $3.8 million to the school board to pay for the employee bonuses, Councilwoman Mary Ann Lisanti reached out to Cerveny to bring the teachers’ union into the fold. She wanted to know what legislative language would allow the HCEA to sign on.
Working with county attorneys and Cerveny, Lisanti said it was agreed that changing the words “one-time bonus” to the word “payment”, and transferring the funds to the school board specifically for instructional salaries, would bring HCEA on board. In agreement with County Executive Craig’s plan, Lisanti said it was always her intention that the funds would be a one-time payment that would not become part of teachers’ base pay. Council Vice-President Dick Slutzky concurs: “In my mind it was a change of one word that would make it acceptable to HCEA leadership to justify a one-time bonus.”
Tuesday, December 13
Hours before the Council vote authorizing the transfer of funds, Lisanti said she put Cerveny on speakerphone and walked into the office of Council President Billy Boniface so that all parties were crystal clear on the following point: despite the name change, the bonus was a one-time payment and not an amount to be negotiated as salary, either for next year or in a dispute over HCEA’s contract for the current school year, which happened to be pending before the Maryland Public School Labor Relations Board. Later in the evening, the Council voted unanimously to approve a $3.8 million transfer to the school board, enough to pay a $625 bonus to each employee in Harford County Public Schools and just in time for the holidays. What could possibly go wrong?
Wednesday, December 14
Cerveny sent an e-mail to members with a message that appeared to contradict the expressed intent of the County Executive and County Council: Here’s the relevant excerpt from Cerveny’s email:
The fact that the Council passed the bill and the money is now in the school system’s budget is a big win and greatly enhances HCEA’s potential ability to use this money through renegotiations. This Friday, the [Maryland Public School] Labor Board will hold a hearing to determine the money that is to be renegotiated. The money that was just released to HCPS could be part of that pot, meaning that the binding ruling of the Labor Board could help HCEA restore money lost over the last three years and help upgrade your salaries—permanently. Any upgrade to your salary schedule will raise your base salary and be returned year after year, not just once, as the County Executive has proposed.
Thursday, December 15
Cerveny’s e-mail, being an e-mail, got forwarded and soon came to the attention of Craig, Slutzky and Lisanti, among others. Lisanti e-mailed Cerveny Thursday night and said she had yet to receive a reply as of Saturday. “I feel purposely misled,” she said. Slutzky agreed: “If there is a suggestion of duplicity or misrepresentation then I believe that occurred on the end of HCEA.”
Friday, December 16
County Executive Craig announced a line item veto of the $3.8 million transfer to the school board. The veto announcement was made public at about 9:15 a.m.
At 10:00 a.m., the Labor Board hearing that Cerveny referred to in his email was set to begin in Glen Burnie. Cerveny said later that his attorney from the Maryland State Education Association was prepared to argue that all of the money that the Council had authorized on Tuesday, the $3.8 million intended for all HCPS employee bonuses, should be put into the pot of available funds for renegotiations with HCEA.
Cerveny said it was up to the Labor Board to decide if that would happen but that because the HCEA contract was the only open contract for the current year, the union attorney would argue that HCEA should get first crack at any incoming funds. Cerveny also said there was no intent to deceive, only to negotiate the money, and that the Labor Board could take into consideration the promises made to the other unions and/or rule that that the bonus was one-time money only.
Lisanti’s reaction to the plan to go after all $3.8 million: “I was either purposely misled or this was a change in strategy. I think it was an opportunistic legal strategy being developed and executed by the state teachers union to take advantage of the situation….I suspect HCEA is being used as a pawn. I am sickened by this. It hurts the people we rely on the most.”
But the Labor Board never got to decide what to do about the $3.8 million. Cerveny said that an attorney for the Harford County school board “sprung” the news of Craig’s veto on everyone at the hearing.
Meanwhile, HCPS had already set the wheels in motion to pay $625 as promised to the employees who were not represented by HCEA. Despite Craig’s veto announcement on Friday, some of those employees reported that the bonus had hit their bank account. Thus, HCPS had inadvertently blown a hole in their budget of about $1.5 million and confusion ensued. In the end, Superintendent Tomback announced that HCPS would not seek to recall the payment, and all employees, except for the 3,200 or so who are represented by HCEA, would get their holiday bonus.
Late Friday, Cerveny released a statement, which reads in part: “The County Executive is attempting an illegal power grab, usurping the Board of Education’s authority and violating state law and the rights of school system employees and state and local agencies. Our public schools, hardworking educators, and state law are all being victimized by his stunning display of overreach.”
Hope for Holiday Spirit?
County Executive Craig outlined his next steps in the veto statement Friday: “Upon resolution of the matter before the Maryland Public School Labor Relations Board, I will decide with the County Council whether to re-introduce legislation to restore funding for a true one-time bonus to Board of Education employees. It was my intention during the outset of this proposal that this be a one-time non-recurring expense, and that all employees be treated equally.”
Council Vice-President Dick Slutzky later agreed, adding that he still supports the spirit of the bonus for all and is open to finding a way to reimburse the school system as long as the money would not be encumbered by the Labor Board. (Please see related story)
For her part, Councilwoman Lisanti said her door is still open to HCEA, with the understanding that the bonus is a one-time payment with no relation to base compensation. Speaking of her involvement in the process, Lisanti said, “I was motivated for respect for public employees and recognize their shared sacrifice over the last few years.”