School Employees Forgo 5% Raises in Montgomery
Officials Hail $89 Million Deal to Close Budget Gap
Thursday, December 4, 2008; Page B01
Montgomery County teachers and other school employees have agreed to give up a 5 percent pay raise next year, a concession that saves the school system $89 million and allows Superintendent Jerry D. Weast to balance the budget.
Leaders of four employee associations, representing more than 22,000 workers, agreed Tuesday to forgo the raise all workers would have received in the fiscal year that begins in July. Weast said he and other top administrators in Maryland's largest school system would also lose annual raises.
School officials said it was the first time since the early 1990s that Montgomery school employees had given up a contractual pay raise, a sign of the magnitude of the economic challenge. School board President Nancy Navarro (Northeastern County) credited unions with "tremendous sacrifice during these tough times."
Budget constraints have prompted Gov. Martin O'Malley (D) to consider requiring unpaid furloughs for more than 67,000 state employees and contractors. And across the region, school officials are wondering whether they can fund cost-of-living raises in the 2009-10 academic year. Loudoun County teachers were forced to go without raises this school year.
Under the Montgomery agreement, about two-thirds of school employees would receive customary "step" raises based on rising seniority.
Employee groups reluctantly agreed to renegotiate their contracts, which were approved in more prosperous times and called for three consecutive increases of about 5 percent each. The contracts have become a symbol of overspending to some of the county's fiscal critics.
"Employees have done their part," said Bonnie Cullison, president of the Montgomery County Education Association, in a statement. Now, she said, teachers are counting on county leaders "to minimize the harm to our schools."
The pay raises "became our targets," Weast said, when school system leaders realized that they had no other means of reducing expenses without raising class sizes and lowering the rigor of instruction. "We're trying to do all of this without any loss of quality," he said.
For the first time in more than a decade, the 139,000-student school system expects virtually no funding increase from the county. School leaders projected that they would have needed $180 million, a 9 percent increase, to preserve the raises, keep pace with enrollment growth and avoid cutting staff.
The pay concessions go halfway toward balancing the budget, which Weast will present to the school board next week. In addition, Weast will propose eliminating 280 jobs, for a further savings of $38 million. Weast said the positions will come from central administration and from schools, but not classrooms. School officials could not say whether the cuts could be achieved without layoffs.
Montgomery schools have saved $10 million this fiscal year and expect to save another $10 million by summer. Weast said he will ask the county to transfer that money to next year's budget.
County Council member Valerie Ervin (D-Silver Spring), who chairs the education committee, praised the labor groups for recognizing "the grave nature of the situation," and she predicted that the council will accept Weast's plan.
The breakthrough in talks between school officials and the unions comes as Montgomery's elected leaders confront a projected fiscal 2010 shortfall that had ballooned to $515 million. The County Council has whittled that figure to about $450 million through a package of midyear budget trims approved last week.
The projected gap, which represents about 12 percent of the county's tax-supported budget, rivals budget problems in 2003. That year, the council delayed scheduled raises for county workers for several months and increased a variety of taxes, including those on income, energy and property.
But County Executive Isiah Leggett (D) and council leaders have fewer options this year, largely because they have sworn off exceeding the county's limit on property tax revenue, as they did to help balance the budget last spring.
Timothy Firestine, Leggett's chief administrative officer, called the superintendent's plan "a good starting point."