On the fourth day of Teacher Appreciation Week, roughly 100 Howard County Public School educators left work Thursday afternoon and went straight to a press conference and rally outside the system’s central office.

Decked out in red union T-shirts, teachers gathered to express their frustrations with entering a stalemate with the school board over contract negotiations. Inside, board of education members and central office employees were prepping for the school board meeting.

Supporters held signs that read: “Teachers Need More Than Apples,” “I eat ramen because of YOU!,” “ZUM GETS ALL THE $$$ … EDUCATORS GET THE SHAFT!”

The minimum salary for Howard County teachers is $58,744. The Blueprint for Maryland’s Future, the multiyear plan to improve public schools, requires school systems statewide to increase teacher pay to a minimum of $60,000 by 2026.

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The minimum salary for Howard County teachers is $58,744. The Blueprint for Maryland’s Future requires school systems to increase teacher pay to a minimum of $60,000 by 2026. (Kaitlin Newman/The Baltimore Banner)

The school board offered a single-step increase and a 1% cost-of-living adjustment to the teacher’s union. However, veteran educators at the top of the step scale would receive only the 1% COLA. The Howard County Education Association rejected the offer in March. The school board has since refused the teachers union’s offer to enter into a multiyear contract.

“We need four members of this [school] board to decide that making a multiyear contract with their educators is more important than dumping more money into a multiyear contract with Zum,” HCEA President Ben Schmitt said at the rally Thursday afternoon.

Howard County schools were plagued by busing issues the first few months of this school year after the newest contractor, Zum, struggled to get all of its routes staffed in time for the start of the year.

“And we need four members of this board to do this now. Not next week. Not next month. It needs to be now,” Schmitt said. The school board has seven members and one student member. The student member cannot vote on matters related to the budget, personnel or restricted matters.

Last week, some county council members expressed their concerns to school system officials about how teacher pay will shake out for the upcoming school year. They stressed the need to remain competitive with neighboring school districts.

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County Council Chair Deb Jung, who voiced concerns last week, came out Thursday to support the educators. Jung’s mother was a kindergarten teacher for 35 years, and her daughter is a Wilde Lake High graduate.

“I sincerely appreciate our teachers, and one of the best ways to show that appreciation is to make sure that you get assigned multiyear contracts,” Jung said. “I know this is not a high-paying job, but we certainly could be paying you all more.”

Schmitt also spoke in front of the school board, during the HCEA segment of Thursday’s meeting, saying “this negotiation cycle has been fraught with obstructionism, delays and bad faith.”

“You’ve offered $22 million, barely enough to cover a step and 1% [COLAs] for our members, and you haven’t budged since,” Schmitt said. “We offered a fair, three-year deal that would minimally change your budget in Year 1 while ensuring larger increases in Year 2 and 3 [for educators].”

Howard County educators rally outside Thursday's school board meeting. (Kaitlin Newman / The Baltimore Banner)

While school system officials and school board members have said they cannot comment on specifics due to ongoing negotiations, tense exchanges occurred Thursday between Schmitt and board members.

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Paul Lemle, an HCEA member, past president and future Maryland State Education Association president, said during Thursday’s rally, “The board’s failure to negotiate destroys its relationships with the community.”

Lemle added that veteran educators are leaving the profession for higher-paying jobs, while the younger members of the workforce “don’t view this [teaching] as a viable career.”

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