Former Aberdeen Middle School teacher Ryan Burbey acknowledges the firebrand reputation he earned advocating for teachers and teacher pay. As the newly elected head of the Harford County teachers’ union, Burbey says he hopes to adopt a more moderate approach and repair relationships with local officials to help improve Harford County Public Schools.
In late August, Burbey won a special election held by the Harford County Education Association (HCEA) to replace Randy Cerveny, the union’s former president. Cerveny resigned in July, partway into his second term – a term Cerveny won in 2011 defeating Burbey in a regular election by an overwhelming margin.
Rank and file members vote in the union’s regular elections, but in accordance with bylaws, the special election to replace Cerveny was limited to the union’s Representative Assembly, which is comprised of school building reps. Burbey declined to report the number of votes cast to elect him but said that a majority of schools were represented and eligible voters were notified of the August 23rd election. Burbey will serve for the remainder of Cerveny’s term, which ends in July 2014.
In a recent interview with The Dagger, the newly elected Burbey said he hadn’t yet talked to Harford County Council members or to County Executive David Craig – all of whom play a role in school funding and were on the receiving end of stinging public criticism from Burbey during the last budget cycle. “I think I’ve made it abundantly clear that nothing is more important than education,” Burbey said of his advocacy as a teacher.
As union president, Burbey said, he will be speaking on behalf of others and hopes for a fresh start with local officials. “I hope they see new beginnings,” Burbey said, adding that he wanted to build “cooperative relationships based on mutual respect.”
Larry Ginsburg, a director assigned to the local union by the Maryland State Education Association, attended The Dagger interview. Speaking of Burbey’s selection, Ginsburg said, “Ryan was elected for a reason. I think people were tired of the way [other] people talk about the profession.”
Changing the public’s view of teachers is also on Burbey’s agenda. “The perception of teachers is erroneous – that teachers aren’t doing a good job,” Burbey said, adding that teachers face “landmark changes.”
Among those changes is the transition to a new national curriculum known as the “Common Core”. Burbey said the union wanted to be involved as the new, more rigorous curriculum is put in place. Teacher evaluations are also in the process of changing, with teachers to be reviewed partly based on student test results. The new system must be negotiated with the union, and using test scores to evaluate teachers has “a number of pitfalls,” Burbey said.
Burbey wants to change the public perception of HCEA. Seen only as a labor advocacy group, Burbey said the union advocates for education and plans to highlight existing efforts including community outreach, scholarships and volunteerism by individual members.
Burbey also hopes to build flagging HCEA membership. The union has 1900 members, Burbey said, down from a high of 2100, which he attributed to a national climate where “teachers are bashed.”
While the union represents all 3200 Harford County teachers in labor negotiations with the school board, not all teachers are union members. Deciding to join the union is a “no-brainer”, Burbey said, because the union represents and protects members’ rights. In response to a question about a local teacher who was almost fired over false allegations, Burbey said that if the teacher had been a union member, union lawyers would have represented him for free.
Following a breakdown in contract negotiations last year the union, under former president Cerveny, called for members to “work to rule” by declining to provide lunchtime tutoring or to run afterschool activities. More than 1000 educators from 30 schools joined the protests in May and June, staging walkouts at the end of their contracted work day. At the time, some teachers called for the action to continue into this year, potentially threatening the viability of school sports teams and other extra-curricular activities.
Defending last year’s action, Burbey said it highlighted how teachers take on extra work not because their contract requires it, but because they love their jobs and their students. For this school year, Burbey said the union’s board of directors had not taken action on whether “work to rule” would continue.
The teachers’ contract was eventually settled for this year to include a 1% salary increase for all teachers, plus a step increase for those who were eligible. Burbey said the current contract still leaves teachers three years behind on steps, explaining that an eighth-year teacher is being paid at a fifth year level. Asked about upcoming negotiations for next year’s contract, Burbey said, “I want to see education become a greater priority for the county.”
To offset the cost of salary increases, the school board cut 66 classroom and related positions for this year, which drew protests at the time from the union. So far, Burbey said he hadn’t heard complaints from teachers about resulting increases in class size, but he said that even a small number of extra students affected teachers’ work load and that class sizes demonstrably affect student achievement.
Speaking of the labor turmoil of last year, Burbey said, “I hope the acrimony in the past is just that.”
Havre de Grace High School
Burbey declined to weigh in on the controversy over the modernization of Havre de Grace High School, which the school board has not identified as a priority but County Executive Craig has said he plans to fund. Rather than picking and choosing, Burbey said the real problem is adequate funding for quality, safe and modern schools. “The money is there” at the county level, Burbey said, adding that raising taxes was not necessarily the answer and calling on county officials to set new priorities.
A New Role
A Harford County native, Burbey said he attended Hickory Elementary School for two years but grew up in Red Lion, PA. By the time he returned to Harford County Public Schools, he was as an experienced teacher. He spent the last eight years teaching English at Aberdeen Middle, where he was also the department chair. Settling into his new job as head of the school system’s largest union, Burbey said, “I’m excited in my new role and I look forward to building better schools in Harford County.”