School System Cannot Afford Raises, Chief Says

By Daniel de Vise and Ann E. Marimow
Washington Post Staff Writers
Tuesday, October 7, 2008

Montgomery County's schools chief has told principals that the system cannot afford to fund scheduled pay raises for the coming budget year, underscoring grim economic conditions that could also have repercussions for thousands of other local government workers.

School Superintendent Jerry D. Weast has said that labor contracts will have to be renegotiated, and Board of Education President Nancy Navarro said yesterday that planned raises of 5.3 percent for teachers are probably unrealistic when the county faces a projected $250 million shortfall for fiscal 2010.

"The financial situation is such that everything is on the table," Navarro said. "Obviously, what we have in place right now looks like it will not be viable."

Weast's chief of staff, Brian Edwards, confirmed the superintendent's private warnings to school principals. "Dr. Weast is having very frank conversations with staff, with union leadership, with parent leadership that next year's budget situation is a dire one," he said.

During a contentious budget battle last spring over raises for government workers, union contracts became a symbol to some critics of overspending and the power of labor leaders. The school board was able to honor the contract for this fiscal year by cutting and reassigning positions and scaling back academic initiatives.

Montgomery teachers are in the second year of a three-year contract that awarded a pay raise of 5 percent this year. Roughly two-thirds of teachers also received annual step increments of between 1.9 and 5.5 percent. The average salary for Montgomery teachers was $70,011 a year as of fall 2007, the highest figure of any Maryland county, according to state data.

Tom Israel, executive director of the Montgomery County Education Association, said the labor group has not agreed to renegotiate the contract and will not do so based on economic forecasts.

"Obviously all the indications are we are already in very difficult times," he said. But "we will make decisions based on the actual data, not just on forecasts, because time and time again, the forecasts have proven wrong."

The superintendent is legally required to fund the negotiated pay raise absent a mutual agreement with union leaders. No elected official or union leader would publicly discuss breaking the contract, which is regarded as one of the most sensitive topics in upcoming budget talks. Privately, though, several officials said the contract cannot be funded.

Teacher pay is central to the budget blueprint that Weast must present to the school board in mid-December and sets the context for the overall spending plan that County Executive Isiah Leggett (D) sends to the County Council in March.

Four months ago, council members signed off on a $4.3 billion budget for the current year that increased property tax bills for the average homeowner by about 13 percent and left union contracts untouched. But the sentiment from school system leaders was echoed yesterday by Leggett and council members, who have the final say on Montgomery's budget.

Council President Michael Knapp (D-Upcounty) is preparing a preliminary framework for closing the shortfall that considers rolling back or eliminating pay raises for all county government workers. Wiping out so-called cost-of-living adjustments would shave as much as $125 million.

"All the unions recognize where we are," said Knapp, who called labor leaders his partners. "There's going to have to be some element of employee participation."

Leggett said that in meetings with union leaders "the message has been clear" about the county's fiscal constraints.

"We will be asking them to make some adjustments," he said, "in order to avoid severe cuts in services."

To close a budget gap five years ago, leaders of the unions representing county government and school system employees agreed to defer pay raises for several months.

Union leaders agreed with the assessment of the local, state and national economic outlook, but said it was premature to talk specifics.

"I'm never excited about the prospect of going back to the bargaining table," said Gino Renne, president of the Municipal and County Government Employee Organization. "That said, we look at the numbers just like everybody else does. This is a different year."

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