Harford County Public Schools support staff urged members of the County Council to support higher wages for workers such as bus drivers and school custodians during the council’s second and final public hearing on the county’s fiscal 2018 budget Thursday.
“I’m here today to let you know that we’re here and also ask [you] to keep us in mind when it comes to funds for the school system,” Deborah Tell, president of AFSCME Local 2471, said during the hearing.
The hearing in the auditorium of Fallston High School lasted just10 minutes and featured five speakers, including Tell.
Council members did stick around long after the hearing to talk one-on-one with attendees, as they did following a May 4 public hearing at Joppatowne High School.
At least 20 people were in the audience. Tell and four of her colleagues and fellow union members, who wore green AFSCME shirts, sat in the front row. Chabria Thomas, an organizer with AFSCME Council 67 in Baltimore, sat with them.
The American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, a nationwide union, represents more than 700 HCPS support workers, according to Tell.
She said after the meeting that group includes employees such as bus drivers, bus attendants, food service workers, facilities and maintenance staff, school custodians and some technology and office staff.
“It’s been a long time since we had a halfway decent raise,” she told council members.
Tell, a bus driver who has worked for the school system for nearly 30 years, said the last major pay increase for support staff came in 2006.
She said wages have increased by 74 cents in the past decade.
“They’re working 40 hours a week, yet they’re finding they can’t support their families without going out and getting a second job, and many of those jobs are full-time jobs as well,” Tell said.
Employees represented by AFSCME are in one of five employee bargaining units with which the Board of Education negotiates contracts.
The school board and all five bargaining units have agreed the school system will provide two step increases on the salary scale and a 2 percent COLA, or cost of living allowance, for eligible employees, although those increases are “contingent upon necessary fiscal support from the funding authorities,” according to an earlier statement from the school system.
The School Board has approved a $456.06 million operating budget for fiscal 2018, with the majority of funding coming from the county and state. That figure is $17.1 million more than the current operating budget, and much of the increase was meant for employee salary increases.
The school board requested $251.6 million for the county’s portion of the budget, but County Executive Barry Glassman allocated $238.7 million in his proposed county budget for next year — it is a $5.2 million increase from what the county allocated to the schools this year, and Glassman has said $5 million of that increase is slated for teacher pay increases and earmarked for the school budget’s instructional salaries category. The money can’t be shifted elsewhere without county approval.
The County Council has the final say on the county’s annual budget, including how much goes to the school system. While it has the power to restore any reduction of funds Glassman has made in the school system’s total funding request, it would also have to find money to do that, either from reductions elsewhere in the county executive’s budget or by raising taxes.
Tell asked council members to “make sure that our pay raises are in the back of your mind” when the school board makes its annual budget requests.
Dave Magnani, a resident of Abingdon, expressed his concerns about what he called “wasteful spending” by the school system, such as paying too much to contractors.
“I am in support of benefitting the teachers, who do an excellent job, but when the school system continually cries for more money every year, I think they should look at their own wasteful spending habits and implement checks and balances, not only with the purchasing but with the rest of the administration,” he said.
The council also heard from the heads of the unions representing Harford County Sheriff’s Office law enforcement and corrections deputies, who expressed their thanks that Glassman’s budget includes salary increases for deputies and civilian employees.
The AFSCME members had an in-depth discussion with Council President Richard Slutzky about school funding after the hearing. The conversation started after he embraced Carolyn Gordon, a custodian who has worked at Aberdeen High School since 1991.
Gordon said later that she has known Slutzky, a former teacher and coach at AHS, since 1984, as her four children are graduates of Aberdeen High.
She said the conversation with Slutzky was productive, but that the council president also had explained county government has little control over how the school system spends its allocation.
“It’s really up to the [school] board to put the money where it needs to go,” she said.