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Dec. 16, 2008

Annual teacher pay raises discontinued

by Rose Wynn, Online Sports Editor
Due to a massive budget deficit in Montgomery County Public Schools (MCPS), the Montgomery County Board of Education (BOE) negotiated with three teachers' unions to forgo cost-of-living wage increases for teachers in Montgomery County next year.

The board collaborated with the Montgomery County Education Association (MCEA), Montgomery County Association of Administrative and Supervisory Personnel (MCAASP) and Service Employees International Union (SEIU) at a meeting Dec. 3 to establish a solution to account for the $89 million deficit.

The decision to abandon wage increases marks the end of a three-year contract established by the BOE, MCEA, MCAASP and SEIU to grant a 5.3 percent annual pay increase for teachers. In an attempt to fill the budget gap, the board decided to reopen this contract for negotiation. "At first there was reluctance," BOE Vice President Patricia O'Neill said. "But as the crisis in Montgomery County grew, employees were willing to participate and work with us to help address the crisis and preserve the maximum number of jobs." O'Neill estimated that if the contract had not been revisited and reconsidered, there would have been close to a couple thousand jobs lost.

The contract was first established as a method of attracting teachers to MCPS, according to Tom Israel, MCEA Executive Director. Israel recognized the necessity of developing financial support systems for instructors. "Thousands of MCPS teachers couldn't afford to live in the county due to cost-of-living expenses," he said. "So if we wanted to attract and retain the best and brightest, we had to offer a financial package."

Aside from the motive to draw teachers to the county, the agreement also served as a form of praise for instructors. "We valued the teachers' work and they deserved to be well compensated," BOE Public Information Officer Kate Harrison said.

O'Neill agreed. "There was a belief that we could afford it and that it was the right thing to do," she said.

MCPS can no longer afford such contracts, and consequences of the necessary cutbacks will become evident soon, according to Blair social studies teacher and MCEA High School Director Marc Grossman. The effects may include larger class sizes, relocation of central office employees and layoffs for specialty teaching positions. "There will no longer be literacy coaches at the high school level," Grossman said. "One hundred and seventeen people in the central office have been asked to return to the classroom. They will cut off support staff such as media assistants, and those are the people that keep the school operating."

In order to prevent such consequences, BOE and teacher unions decided to compromise teacher wages. "We looked to see how to close the [budget] gap and the majority of money was spent on salaries and benefits," Harrison said. "Wages were crucial."

Israel predicted that about 280 jobs will still be lost in an effort to improve the financial situation. "The reality of it is we're in the middle of a national recession, and there have to be cuts across the board," he said. "No one is happy about it, but it's clear that there is shared sacrifice everywhere."

Blair science teacher Leslie Backus voiced mixed feelings about the decision. "I'd much rather they raise taxes and leave our wages alone, but I understand," she said. "They want to spread the pain and I accept that. I don't personally see another way to do it."

Many teachers, Grossman included, have expressed their disappointment with the wage cuts, and some have predicted that more teachers may quit their jobs in search of higher-paying professions, according to Backus. "If they continue to use us to solve their budget problems, more people will say 'why am I here?' " she said.

Backus herself plans to retire at the end of next year. "It will be tighter on me and my family, but there's nothing I can do," she said. "It's much more difficult than people realize."

Grossman attested to the great expanse of the deficit. "It is all part of a larger issue. This is only going to be the first round of cuts," he said. O'Neill also admitted that the future looks grim. "I don't know what lies in store for us in the next few years, but all indications are that the economy is not improving," she said.

O'Neill appreciated teachers' sacrifices and cooperation in the decision. "We are very grateful that in the tough fiscal times, our employees were willing to renegotiate an agreement," she said.

Harrison said MCEA, MCAASP and SEIU have been accommodating. "There was an extremely valuable and high-level degree of cooperation that will serve the school system well," she said.



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