All but forgotten in the flurry of business completed last week by the Montgomery County school board was the panel's approval of a three-year contract with all three of its labor unions, calling for pay raises of about 5 percent a year.
The board has agreed to give teachers annual bumps of 4.8 percent in the fiscal year that begins July 1, with another 5 percent coming in fiscal 2009 and 5.3 percent in 2010. Funding the first of the three increases will cost the school system $70 million, which is more than half of the $136 million increase the school board seeks in its $1.98 billion operating budget for 2008.
The raises go not only to the more than 11,000 teachers represented by the Montgomery County Education Association, but also to the principals and other administrators represented by the Montgomery County Association of Administrative and Supervisory Personnel, and to Service Employees International Union Local 500, which represents support professionals.
"I think this is not only fundable but doable," said Superintendent Jerry D. Weast, speaking at last week's school board meeting. "I think this is the right thing to do."
Montgomery already pays the most of any jurisdiction in Maryland to a first-year teacher with a bachelor's degree, $41,758, according to 2006 data from the state Department of Education. Comparable salaries range from $37,987 in Frederick County to $41,410 in Prince George's County.
The county must also compete with Fairfax County, where the starting salary is $42,400, and other school systems in Northern Virginia.
"Our salaries are competitive, but not way out in front of other suburban school systems," said Tom Israel, executive director of the teachers association. He notes that the county's teachers are "working hard and producing great results with kids."
The county has a long tradition of honoring the contracts negotiated between the teachers and the school board, Israel said.
"The reality of it is," he said, "we've been bargaining contracts in [Montgomery County public schools] for darn near 40 years, and you can count on one hand the number of times they haven't been funded. . . . Montgomery County has a history I think they can be proud of."
Board member Patricia O'Neill (Bethesda-Chevy Chase) seemed to speak for the majority who voted to approve the contracts when she said, "We bargained, and I believe a bargain is a promise." She added that, "You know, no one is getting rich becoming a teacher, even with this contract."
But not everyone is confident the county will fully fund this three-year pact. County Executive Isiah Leggett (D) has signaled he may not carry on the tradition of his predecessor, Douglas M. Duncan (D), in signing off on most or all of the budget increase sought by the school board.
At the time Weast announced his budget request late last year, Timothy Firestine, Leggett's chief administrative officer, told the County Council "you absolutely can't sustain" the pace of spending approved in recent years. "That's just not going to work."
Worriers also point to a decision by Gov. Martin O'Malley (D) to hold back $94.7 million for the Geographic Cost of Education Index (GCEI), part of the landmark 2002 Thornton education plan that his predecessor Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. (R) never funded. The initiative is designed to steer additional money to jurisdictions, such as Montgomery County, where the cost of providing education is considered higher.
"The people I've talked to in both county and state government tell me revenues aren't coming in as quickly as they have in the past," said school board member Stephen N. Abrams (Rockville-Potomac). "GCEI is lost. . . . You have to sort between the posturing and the reality."
Abrams voted against all three labor agreements, although he said he supports the first year of the contract because he believes it can be adequately funded. School board member Sharon W. Cox (At Large) opposed the teacher contract. They were the lone dissenters. Abrams said his concern was "the sustainability of it: I won't vote for a contract that I don't believe we legitimately can fund."
Marshall Spatz, budget director for the county schools, said he believes the spending plan is sound.
"We believe that our budget puts us in a position to justify full funding," he wrote in an e-mail. He noted that the proposed spending increase, a little over 7 percent, is lower than "the average of the last 5 years."