On March 23, Anne Arundel County Executive James Lighthizer hosted one of his biweekly "Open Door" public meetings, apparently unaware that his candid remarks to a high school teacher would be circulated among the 3400 members of the county's teachers' union.
Roy Payne had asked Lighthizer why he should be a teacher, explaining he had to support a wife and child on what he felt was an unreasonably low salary. Lighthizer, according to a memo Payne later wrote, responded that teaching was a "young man's profession" not suited for someone with a family and a mortgage.
That remark, say representatives of the Teachers' Association of Anne Arundel County(TAAAC), illustrates what they call Lighthizer's "immature" attitude toward teachers. The union also holds Lighthizer responsible for persuading the County Council to deny a 4.5 percent pay increase that had been endorsed by the Board of Education.
Lighthizer says his remarks were "taken out of context," and not intended for publication. Since the incident, he says "the teachers are the only union in the county that I absolutely will not deal with."
From now on, says Lighthizer, he will not meet with teachers unless the conversation is recorded and witnesses are present.
Lighthizer's rocky relationship with the county teachers began last fall, when the TAAAC campaigned against him in his election.
The union claims Lighthizer begrudged them their raise because of their political oposition, a charge Lighthizer says is unfounded. Lighthizer said it was a matter of a fiscal responsibility and the salary freeze applied across the board, not just to teachers.
County Council member Carole B. Baker (D- Broadneck) said that the salary freeze was the result of a predicted $6 million deficit and the county's need to improve its roads and sewers.
William Scott, the chief school board negotiator, said, "We thought the 4.5 percent increase was reasonable and responsible, but the county just did not have the money."
Union representatives argue that they are the lowest paid teachers in the state's five metropolitan counties, and that continuing to freeze their salaries could cause county teachers to seek jobs with higher paying school systems.
Anne Arundel teacher salaries trail those in Howard, Montgomery, Prince George's and Baltimore counties, according to the Maryland State Teachers' Association(MSTA).
Teachers with a bachelor's degree and no prior teaching experience are paid $13,500. The top of the scale is $29,000 reserved for teachers with a master's degree, 30 additional credits and 30 years of teaching.
Betsy Moyer, a MSTA researcher, said the salary differential could lead Anne Arundel teachers to relocate to higher-paying counties. The possibility of a teacher shortage is real, Moyer said.
Baker says it is unlikely teachers will move out of the county. "Teachers generally take jobs where they live," she said, pointing out the Anne Arundel teachers' low turnover rate of four percent.
The union, prohibited by Maryland law from striking, traditionally has used political leverage to strengthen its demands. Now that those strategies have backfired with Lighthizer, they are hoping to appeal to the County Council to allocate any future budget surplus to a retroactive raise for them.
Maureen Lamb (D-Annapolis), said animosity between Lighthizer and the union "made no difference whatsovever this year" in the council's decision not to give teachers a raise and that the teachers will probably not be granted any raise this year.
The vote "was the hardest decision I ever made in my life," said Lamb, a former school board member. "My heart really went out to the teachers, but I felt we had to be fiscally responsible."
Lamb said voting the teachers a raise would have "pulled the rug out from under" Lighthizer's plan, as he would then have felt pressured to give other county employes raises as well.
Lamb predicted that any county surplus would be set aside in a fund to ensure the county's bond rating.