The classic strategy of negotiation is to start high and hope to meet the opposition somewhere in the middle. True to form and then some, the Prince George's County Educators Association put a demand for a whopping 42.4 percent, one-year salary increase on the table last week in the opening rounds of talks on a new teachers' contract.
The teachers say they needd a big raise to make up for two years of inflation and higher taxes, and as compensation for an increased workload.
Two months of bargaining are expected to end in late January, in time for the school board to include the teachers' contract, which will go into effect in September 1981, in their 1981-82 budget. The teachers and the school board will then circle the wagons for the real battle: carving out the funds, they need in the 1981-82 budget, as shaped by County Executive Lawrence J. Hogan, the County Council and TRIM, the county's tax-limiting measure.
"When we negotiate we represent management and the people. Labor represents the employes. So we go through this process and we come to an agreement," said school board member Al Golato. Then " . . . we still have to go to the county executive and the County Council. When we go there it's almost as if the whole process starts over again."
A Hogan aide quoted the county executive as saying of the teachers' salary demand, "When I got up off the floor after rolling with laughter, I realized it must be a misprint. It was totally absurd."
The teachers based their salary demand on a compounded inflation rate of 41.9 percent between September of 1978, in the last year of their previous contract, and September 1981, when the next contract will start. They added another 5.8 percent to cover the increase in their income taxes as cost-of-living and experience raises push them into higher brackets, and another 5 percent for what they feel are increases in "productivity." This adds up to 52.7 percent. Less the 10.3 percent they received in their present contract, the figure is 42.4 percent.
School spokesman Brian Porter estimated tht such a raise for the approximately 7,000 teachers would add $86 million to the school budget, which totaled $287 million last year.
"We knew it was going to be a high figure but we didn't expect it to be as high as this. We knew that we had lost a lot but we didn't know how much until we checked the figures," said David Graham of the National Education Association and chief negotiator for the Prince George's teachers."Quite frankly, the public is going to tear us to pieces on this," he added.
The present starting salary for a teacher with a bachelor's degree is $12,014. After ten years of experience, a teacher is required to earn a master's degree and the pay then rises to $20,063. A 42.4 percent raise would push the beginning and 10-year salaries up to $17,108 and $28,569 respectibely, beginning next September.
"We are like everybody else. Out job is to do as much for our teachers as we can," said Graham. "We are concerned that people are going to start leaving the profession. People can't just stay when the money doesn't mean anything anymore."
Graham said teachers have shouldered an extra load in the last two years, as handicapped children have been enrolled in regular classes and classes have grown larger, in violation of the current teacher contract in some cases. In addition, he said, the administrative slack caused by the loss, due to economy measures, of 48 elementary school vice principals over the last two years has been taken up by the teachers.
This, the teachers feel, amounts to a 5 percent increase in their productivity.
School board member Susan Bieniasz, like most school observers and county officials interviewed, said she was surprised by the union's request.
"It's a great Christmas list; I wish we could give it to them," said Bieniasz. "This is the beginning of negotiations. I did not expect it to be that high. I did expect it to be double-digit."
"I'd have to see their actual reasoning" on the teachers' claim to a 5 percent increase in productivity, said Bieniasz. "I don't think the term (productivity) is appropriate. I feel the job we are asking them to do is complex and I'd like to remunerate them fairly for it. Meeting the individual needs of (handicapped) students are federal mandates. It's part of teaching in today's world."
Perhaps more controversial is the teachers' demand that they be compensated for the loss of buying power suffered when they were pushed into higher tax brackets by previous raises and routine pay increases as they gained experience.
"It's obviously saying to the taxpayers, 'we want you to fund our taxes,'" said an observer. "It's certainly novel."
After the school budget is formed it goes to the county executive, who may raise or lower the total figure as a part of the county's overall budget. Then the County Council will get the document. The council may shift amounts from one category to another within the county budget. It could, for example, increase the school budget by taking money from another county agency, but it cannout increase overall spending without raising taxes. Finally, the council-approved budget will go back to the school board, which will adopt it after making adjustments dictated by the final figure.
State law forbids a teacher strike, and the union recognized that the contract will be the result of a tug-of-war among three sets of elected officials.
"The only weapons we have are political weapons. We have our friends here and there and we remind them how they got there," said union spokesman Steve Bittner.
During the debate over last year's budget, Hogan sought to jawbone the teachers into accepting a 3.3 percent raise instead of the 5 percent stipulated in their contract. The teachers responded with a work slowdown that lasted three weeks, until the County Council restored enough funds to the budget to enable the shcool board to give the teachers their 5 percent raise, Bittner said.
Hogan aide Stephanie Bolick said there is no truth to the rumor that Hogan wants only a 3.o percent increase for the teachers this time around.
But Bittner noted that the County Council may not be coming to the teacher's rescue this spring.
"It seems that the council wants to out-Hogan Hogan," said Bittner, refering to the 35-cents-per-$100 valuation cut in property taxes the council passed last spring.
"We realize that if we clean every nook and cranny in the school budget we're not going to find enough money to fund a 42 percent (pay) increase," said Graham. "We don't know where the money is in the county budget either.But we are putting the county executive and council on notice that we expect a good portion of that money to go to the teachers."