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Baltimore councilmember says teacher pay hike plan is a 'real quick way for a county to go down the tubes'

Cindy Sexton, president of the Teachers Association of Baltimore County spoke to members of the Baltimore County Public School board while representatives of the teacher's union held up half a dozen reams of paper more than six feet long with thousands of names of members who demand pay raises at the school district.

The latest plan by Baltimore County Public School leaders to afford promised teacher pay raises appears to be in trouble with both the county executive and leaders on the county council. An average pay raise of around 8% for educators hangs in the balance as the school system and the county government remain at loggerheads. The school system’s latest proposal, which WYPR obtained through a Maryland’s Public Information Act open records request, hinges on the county giving the schools $167 million additional dollars over a five year period.

School officials also promise to slice $16 million from the budget next year for salary increases which for five years would cost upwards of $500 million.

County Executive Johnny Olszewski said the money for the raises should largely come from cuts the school system makes to its $2 billion budget. Olszewski pointed out his administration has given the county schools record amounts of money.

“At first glance, it appears that rather than doing that, there’s just a small portion that comes from savings within the existing budget, and it appears a lot of what’s being asked, at least on the county side is asking our residents to shoulder a big burden of that,” Olszewski said.

The county executive warned that if the county, rather than the school system, ends up paying for the lion’s share of the raises, it could lead to a hefty increase in the property tax rate.

Democratic Councilman Tom Quirk, who chairs the council’s spending affordability committee, doesn’t like that the school system and teachers’ union agreed to the pay raises after the county’s budget was passed. That’s why the money for the raises isn’t there.

Quirk said imagine if every county department did that: asked for more money after the budget is a done deal. He said what the school system did is highly inappropriate and unprecedented during his 12 years on the council.

“Oh my gosh that would be the most fiscally reckless and irresponsible budget ever, a real quick way for a county to go down the tubes if we started doing these things on the fly,” Quirk said.

County Council Chairman Julian Jones, a Democrat, agreed.

“This proposal came in literally less than two months after the budget had passed so the timing is very difficult to swallow,” Jones said.

Another part of the proposal county officials don’t like is that it relies heavily on using tens of millions of dollars in projected budget surplus money in coming years.

But there could be a Catch-22 regarding that.

A portion of the budget surplus is due to unpaid salaries from teacher vacancies. If you increase salaries, theoretically there will be fewer vacancies, causing the budget surplus they’re counting on to shrink.

Both Olszewski and Quirk said relying on hoped-for surpluses is a dangerous way to do a budget.

“To budget on an expectation of an annual surplus would really be unwise,” Quirk said.

Former County Executive Don Mohler chimed in on social media.

“Agencies don’t get to ignore budget parameters and spend millions more than allotted,” Mohler posted. “Spending fund balances to pay for ongoing expenses is irresponsible. It creates a budget crisis in future years that is unsustainable and disrespects taxpayers.”

Olszewski said his budget analysts are studying the proposal in advance of a meeting next week with school officials.

“We’ll have more to say after both talking with them and also doing a deep dive with our budget team,” Olszewski said.

The school system declined WYPR’s request for an interview about the budget proposal, but in a statement said it is fiscally sustainable.

During Tuesday night’s school board meeting, Superintendent Darryl Williams defended it.

“We’re grateful to our funding partners and committed to coming together to find solutions that are both fiscally responsible and financially meaningful to our hard working employees,” Williams said.

At that school board meeting TABCO, the teachers union, put on a full court press for the promised raises. TABCO representatives held up to the board half a dozen reams of paper more than six feet long with 3,000 names of members demanding the pay raise be honored.

Christine Phillips, who teaches Spanish at Woodlawn High School, told the board it’s her dream job but she doesn’t know if she will be back next year.

“The least this board, the county council and the county executive can do is fund our raises,” Phillips said. “We are underpaid in comparison to surrounding districts and we simply deserve more. We are pulling the weight of hundreds of vacancies and if you don’t compensate us we will leave.”

TABCO president Cindy Sexton said the leverage the union has is that the school system can’t lose 1,000 educators like it did last year.

Sexton said that is unsustainable.

John Lee is a reporter for WYPR covering Baltimore County.
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