The Charles County Board of Education signed contracts with employee unions last week to provide a 3 percent cost of living raise for all workers for the coming school year.

Endorsing the agreements were the Education Association of Charles County, which represents teachers and other certified employees, and the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, the union for noncertified employees and support staff workers. A year ago employees received a 2 percent increase.

In addition to giving a 3 percent raise, the teachers contract decreases the number of steps necessary to reach the top of the pay scale from 30 to 27, meaning teachers can reach a higher salary faster. The contract also provides for psychologists and speech therapists who have a particular certification to receive $1,000 on top of their salary.

"We came up with an agreeable contract," said Bill Fisher, president of the Education Association of Charles County. "More than 95 percent of our members ratified the contract. That was welcome news for me."

The average salary for teachers in Charles last year was $47,044, placing the county 16th among 25 jurisdictions and below the state average of $50,303, according to the Maryland State Department of Education. Calvert county ranked second in the state, with an average salary of $54,623, and St. Mary's ranked eighth, with an average of $49,219.

In St. Mary's County, the teachers union also has reached a tentative agreement with the Board of Education. The contract, agreed to in April, gives teachers cost-of-living raises totaling 10 percent over the next two years.

The raises come in increments: For the first six months of the coming contract year, which begins July 1, the teachers receive a 2 percent raise; they get an additional 3 percent beginning in January. The next year the pattern would be the same, though the 2005-06 increases are contingent on the full funding of the board's budget request by county and state governments, according to the contract.

"It is one of the best settlements in the state right now," said Wanda Twigg, president of the Education Association of St. Mary's County. In the current school year, teachers received a 2 percent raise.

The union is informing teachers about the agreement, and Twigg said she hoped the contract would be ratified at the school board meeting at the end of this month.

Twigg said the negotiations were partly marred by the failure to reach an agreement on a health insurance issue. Two days after the tentative agreement in April, union officials noticed that a group of employees had been left out of the decision to have the Board of Education contribute an additional 5 percent of the health insurance premiums.

"We realized we left out people who were 65 and older," Twigg said.

She said she had been told it would cost about $32,000 to include the 134 people who fell into the over-65 category. She approached the Board of Education, saying the teachers would be willing to forgo their agreed-upon raise until the insurance tab was paid off and asked, in effect, "Can we work a deal here behind the scenes," she recalled. "And the Board of Education said, 'Yeah, we'll try to work a deal.' "

However, by early this month it became clear a deal would not be reached, Twigg said, because of a disagreement on how much the additional coverage would cost and how much teachers should pay.

The school system estimated that to fund the additional coverage would cost a little more than $98,000, which would require the raise to be delayed three weeks, said Daniel Carney, chief financial officer for the schools. Twigg said that a school system mistake had generated the higher figure and that the teachers, who were willing to forgo the raise for one week would not pay the higher amount.

"We were not willing to pay the cost of the mistake. We had no choice but to decline the offer, so we're back to where we were," Twigg said. "They have chosen to leave out 134 people because they wanted us to pay for a mistake they made."

In Calvert, contract negotiations are ongoing. Helen Thompson, the president of the Calvert Education Association, declined to comment on the specifics of what the teachers union is requesting. She said a non-disclosure agreement between the union and the Board of Education prevented any public discussion of the negotiations until a contract was signed.

"It keeps both sides talking to one another rather than talking to other folks. Neither side gets to use public opinion" as leverage in the negotiations, she said. The existing contract -- which gave teachers a 4 percent raise -- ends July 1, so talks "still could go for a while."

"We are nothing if not tenacious on both sides," she said.