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Baltimore County schools needs hundreds of teachers, leaders balk over how to pay for raises

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Baltimore County Public Schools
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Baltimore County School Superintendent Darryl Williams.

Hundreds of teachers won’t be in classrooms across the Baltimore County Public School district as students return to school next week. Baltimore County is short more than 400 teachers while the school board is clashing with the county executive and council over how to fund teacher pay raises. Only 40 out of 176 schools across the district are fully staffed, according to Baltimore County School Superintendent Darryl Williams.

Many are struggling to find teachers while nearly a dozen schools have at least 10 vacancies.

“Those schools that have several vacancies, five or more, we look at them as a priority and work with the school principal to figure out what those alternatives may be,” Williams said.

Those alternatives include reassigning central office staff to schools, using interns from local universities as long-term substitutes, and paying teachers more who volunteer to take on an extra class.

Earlier this month, 140 educators in the county resigned. Their experience ranged from five months to 24 years.

Cindy Sexton, the president of the Teachers Association of Baltimore County, said recruiting and retaining teachers needs to be a priority and that means better pay. While the county has the state’s third largest school system, Sexton said it ranks ninth statewide in career earnings.

Teacher salaries are based on years of service and advanced degrees. For example, a starting teacher in Baltimore County with a master’s degree made $52,970 last year. Counterparts in Baltimore City and Howard County made more. Starting teachers with a masters in Anne Arundel and Frederick Counties made less.

“What’s at stake is the future of Baltimore County, and certainly the education of our students,” Sexton said. “A good, quality school system attracts people to the county and we need to make sure that we are working to rebuild that in Baltimore County schools.”

To that end, the school system and the union have reached a tentative agreement that would raise salaries an average of nearly eight percent.

"There’s not another deal right now in this area that comes close to being this good for so many people,” said Sexton during a pitch for a new contract to union members.

Union members will vote on the proposed contract later this month.

But here’s the rub. The $50 million needed to pay for those raises isn’t in the school budget. So the school board wants to grab the money from the school system’s surplus fund. To do that, it needs permission from the county council which has opposed previous attempts of money transfers.

The problem with that plan is that $50 million would only cover the raises for teachers and other staff members for one year, but what happens next, queried County Executive Johnny Olszewski and members of the county council.

Olszewski controls whether the county council will vote on the $50 million request, according to council Chairman Julian Jones. He said that will not happen. Instead, Olszewski will let the council vote on the school board spending $14 million so a planned 3% across the board raise can kick in six months sooner. That is expected to go before the county council in September.

Olszewski hasn’t minced words, calling the school board’s action irresponsible and fiscally unsustainable. Olszewski said the school board needs to find the money within its own budget for the pay raises in the coming years, rather than looking for additional money from county taxpayers.

“To be very clear, Baltimore County cannot afford to sustain the increase the board has proposed, which would require a significant source of new revenue in the coming years,” Olszewski wrote in a recent Baltimore Sun op-ed.

He estimated the county’s property tax would increase by 17 cents to cover the teacher raises adding thousands of dollars more to residential tax bills.

“I can say with confidence that our residents have no appetite for such an increase and, as county executive, it is not an option I will entertain,” Olszewski wrote.

The school board’s decision was not previously communicated to county leaders.

“I think the county council was blindsided in some way by this,” said Republican Councilman David Marks.

Marks wants to see a plan from the school board on how it will make cuts to the school system’s budget to find money for the pay raises in the years ahead.

“Cut your expenses,” he said. “Cut your overhead and administrative costs by 10, 15% so that we can help raise these salaries. I think the onus is on them. And I also think they should open their books. This has been a constant issue, getting them to open their books so we have a full accounting of where they’re spending their money.”

Council Chairman Jones, a Democrat, also said the school system can find the money for pay raises in its $2 billion budget.

“Basically what they’re saying is ‘let us spend this money today and we will figure it out tomorrow.’ The county government is saying ‘no you figure it out now’,” Jones said.

Superintendent Williams said he supports the board’s decision to ask for the surplus money for pay increases. Williams said he’s willing to look for budget cuts to help pay for them.

“So now we have to figure out an alternative way of trying to meet them in the middle to support our staff,” Williams said. “We don’t want to lose our staff members. Folks are comparing our salaries with other systems. So we do want to be competitive.”

The county council, the county executive and the school superintendent all say they want the educators to get the raises that are in the union’s proposed agreement. But there’s disagreement about how that happens.

Union president Cindy Sexton said all involved need to work together to make it happen.

“There is pressure on all of those entities to find the money that we need to support our educators,” Sexton said.

John Lee is a reporter for WYPR covering Baltimore County.
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