By Aaron Cahall and Cindy Mumby
Three weeks ago, the Harford County Public Schools’ fiscal year 2011 budget picture was bad enough that two percent pay cuts for all staff were proposed.
On Monday night, the county Board of Education was told that cost increases were even worse than expected last month, and would require further “adjustments” to the proposed budget.
That information came during a board budget work session that saw more than 200 teachers and school staff pack the Board of Education’s meeting room at the A.A. Roberty Building in Bel Air beyond capacity to protest the pay cuts.
When HCPS Superintendent Robert Tomback first presented his proposed budget on Dec. 21, it included $11.4 million in increases to various items such as health care, increases which required other money including staff pay to be cut to maintain a flat overall budget.
On Monday night, however, those increases had ballooned to $12.1 million due to required additional pension contributions for non-instructional employees, according to HCPS Budget Director Jim Jewell. Jewell said the school system did not get word about the increases from the state until after the proposed budget was first presented.
Jewell would not comment specifically on whether the proposed staff pay cuts would now exceed two percent due to the increased cost, saying only that “adjustments [to the proposed budget] will have to be made.”
Jewell estimated that the proposed two percent pay cut translates to more than $5 million. The pay cuts were not part of Tomback’s initial budget presentation on Dec. 21, and only came to light after The Dagger found them buried in a line item in the budget two weeks later.
During Monday’s budget deliberations, board member Leonard Wheeler questioned why a discussion about the salary cuts hadn’t taken place when the superintendent’s budget proposal was first introduced. Later, Wheeler told The Dagger that, “in these tough times, you to talk to people” and said the information should have been part of the original budget presentation.
However, not all board members saw a problem with the superintendent’s presentation. In an e-mail to The Dagger, board member John Smilko said Tomback’s, “overview at the last meeting [Dec. 21] was accurate and sufficient based on what we (the BOE) know at this time.”
“With 83 percent of the unrestricted budget dedicated to wages and benefits it’s rather clear where the most significant reductions can be made,” Smilko said in the e-mail. “Specifically how the reductions are made with respect to wages and benefits is subject to negotiations which are confidential during the negotiating process.”
Six attendees spoke during the public comment portion of the meeting, all of whom identified themselves as HCPS teachers or teacher’s union representatives and urged the board to avoid staff pay cuts and find other ways to make up for the cost increases.
“Just because times are tough, we cannot stay stagnant or go backward, our students deserve better,” said Brian Rheinhardt, a reading specialist. “That said, innovation costs money and requires buy-in on the part of the teachers.”
But those teachers already feel unappreciated by the board, said Randy Cerveny, president of the Harford County Educators Association, which represents the county’s teachers. He said they have not taken news of the proposed pay cuts well, as Harford teachers’ salaries are already in the bottom third of all school systems statewide.
“I can’t imagine you’re not aware that teachers already feel overworked and underpaid,” Cerveny told the board. “I can assure you morale is at the lowest point I’ve seen in my thirty-plus years of teaching.”
“I’ve already heard rumblings from teachers with several years experience that are considering giving themselves a raise by going to teach in another county,” he said.
Cristen Grich, a second-grade teacher at William Paca/Old Post Road Elementary School, said she was currently pursuing a doctorate, but would have to quit her studies and take up a second job if the pay cuts are implemented.
“The recession was used a crutch for not raising salaries last year,” she said. “But food costs rose, gas rose, even Harford County taxes rose, making it difficult to afford basic bill-pay.”
Aberdeen Middle School teacher Ryan Burbey drew the loudest applause when he expressed frustration that teachers’ salaries were being cut to balance a budget on which they had no say.
“When I get my white board and computer, I would rather have been asked if I was willing to fund them,” he said. “Our salary cuts are funding budget items we have no input on.”
Several individuals present at the meeting questioned why Tomback chose to propose the required cuts in the budget himself, rather than proposing a needs-based budget for the amount required by the school system and letting other authorities including County Executive David Craig make the cuts.
After the meeting, Tomback said he made the choice to reduce the salary line items, which are subject to negotiation, as a “place holder” as his proposed budget went through the full county-level process. Tomback said that he knew what the revenue projections were likely to be and “the most straight-forward, honest, effective and efficient way to tackle the problem was to meet it head on.”
Assistant Superintendent John Markowski also took a head-on approach during his budget presentation to the board.
“There’s not much good news,” he said, concluding the presentation. “I wish it were less doom and gloom, but it is what it is.”