Harford Veto Throws Bonus Plan for 5,443 School Employees into Disarray

… Craig’s action means no money from county to school system; staff already paid won’t be asked to pay it back …


BY BRYNA ZUMER, bzumer@theaegis.com

10:28 PM EST, December 19, 2011

Harford County Executive David Craig’s plan to give bonuses to more than 5,400 county school employees has been thrown into disarray after the teachers union failed to sign off on the agreement and Craig in turn vetoed the part of the legislation funding the school system’s portion of the bonus funds.

While Craig’s veto means none of the millions of dollars slated for the bonuses can be transferred to the school system, some school employees who aren’t represented by the teachers union have already been paid the $625, a county spokesman said, apparently because school officials had believed the money transfer from the county was a done deal.

Those employees who already received their bonuses will not be asked to pay it back, the school system’s superintendent said at Monday night’s Harford County Board of Education meeting.

The veto does not affect 1,939 county government, sheriff’s office and library system employees who are due to receive the $625 bonus before the end of the year.

Accuses union of ‘hijacking’ money

In a statement Friday morning, Craig said he issued a line item veto on the bill passed just four days earlier by the Harford County Council, halting the funding for the $625 bonus distribution for the school system’s 5,443 employees.

Craig, a 34-year educator and former member of the Harford County Education Association, or HCEA, which represents 3,200 teachers and counselors, wrote he was upset by the union’s “attempt to hijack this fund appropriation to support its case before the Maryland Public School Labor Relations Board.”

The council had passed the bonus funding bill with amendments that Craig said allowed HCEA to use the money from the one-time payment as a way to reopen salary negotiations with the Harford County Board of Education and to try to turn the one-time gifts into part of the base salaries of teachers, something Craig did not want because it would obligate the county for additional money in future budgets.

Council members had also passed amendments that approved funding for only half of the $1,250 bonus for which Craig originally planned to spend $11.3 million from a $32 million budget surplus, explaining they wanted to review the second half when next year’s budget picture became clearer. Craig had planned to distribute the bonus in equal installments this month and the next one in June just before the end of the fiscal year.

Year-long salary dispute

The dispute with the teachers union has its roots in the 2011-12 budget process that began late last year.

Last winter, the teachers union and other school employee unions negotiated for a raise package in the 2011-12 budget that would have given the employees a 3 percent cost of living increase and, in the case of the teachers, other salary enhancements. Craig and the county council, however, refused to provide funding for the pay increases. The other unions later reached accords with the school system, but the HCEA pressed its case under the state’s two-year-old school employee binding arbitration law. The dispute has gone before the state board created by that law, and that board held a hearing on the matter Friday.

When Craig realized what one of the council’s amendments might do with the teachers pay issue, he vetoed it, which had the impact of canceling all the money for the bonus that might have gone to the school system.

Amendment Number 5 which, according to council documents, was introduced by Council President Billy Boniface and Council Members Joe Woods, James McMahan, Richard Slutzky and Mary Ann Lisanti, states that $3.8 million would be placed in “Board of Education, Instructional Salaries,” the school budget category that covers the pay of teachers and most other employees who are represented only by HCEA.

In a further complication, the school system had already forward funded the bonuses to employees represented by the four unions other than HCEA that had previously agreed to accept the payment, county spokesman Ben Lloyd said Monday. Most had already received the money.

“This is why support staff, nurses, secretaries and other non-teaching employees will have received the funds,” Lloyd wrote in an e-mail, clarifying again that no money has been transferred from the county to the Harford County Board of Education.

During Monday night’s board of education meeting, Superintendent Robert Tomback read a statement saying that “payroll had already been processed” for those employees not represented by the Harford County Education Association, or HCEA, with the understanding that this was a “forward-funded payment” and would be paid back by the county government’s one-time stipend before the end of the year.

Tomback said the school system “will not seek repayment” on this bonus and will notify employees “immediately” once more details are available.

The following is the complete statement made by Tomback: “As you may be aware, in an announcement made last Friday morning, the County Executive vetoed the line item appropriation to fund the school system employees’ one-time stipend that had been approved by the County Council. The payroll had already been processed for the four bargaining units that had previously signed an agreement for receipt of the stipend. Per an agreement with the county regarding the distribution of funds, the school system forward-funded payment with the understanding that reimbursement from the county would follow. The Board will not seek to recall the payment from the employees. As more information becomes available, we will notify our employees immediately.”

Craig said he hopes to get the teachers the bonus eventually.

“The County Executive regrets that the HCEA leadership has misled teachers throughout this process, and that the simple act of extending a holiday bonus to teachers was turned into a political issue by the union,” Lloyd wrote. “Mr. Craig, however, still hopes that he will be able to fund the one-time bonus that teachers deserve.”

School system spokesperson Teri Kranefeld could not be contacted Monday for an explanation of the impact the veto may have on the school system’s earlier actions.

The school board did have the one of the union agreements for the bonus on its meeting agenda for Monday night.

Nothing was said about the MOU with the Harford County Education Services Council, which chose not to sign the MOU until funding was approved by the county council. HCESC represents more than 900 instructional support, nurses and clerical professionals.

On the school board’s agenda for the night was “Approval of Memorandum of Understanding with Bargaining Units Regarding Distribution of Stipend – Memorandum of Understanding – HCESC.” The board’s agenda was adopted, thereby adopted the MOU.

‘We were misled’

Both council members and Craig seemed taken aback by HCEA’s response to the bonus funding bill’s passage.

On Friday, Boniface, the council president, said it was his understanding that the HCEA would sign the memorandum of understanding accepting the bonuses after the bill was passed.

“I spoke to [Craig] last night [Thursday] and he said he was concerned about the fact that we were misled. I agreed with him,” Boniface said.

“They reneged on what they said they would do,” he said of the teachers. “[Craig] was concerned and said that was unacceptable.”

Boniface said the council can consider overriding the veto during its next legislative meeting on Jan. 3. Five votes would be needed to override the veto.

The council had no plans to meet again before the end of the year. Before the veto controversy erupted, the council had already canceled a meeting scheduled for this week.

“I do support the county executive in that it was everybody’s understanding that they would sign the MOU after we passed that legislation,” Boniface said.

Lisanti’s negotiations

Lisanti, who praised the amendments to the bill when they were being approved Tuesday, said Monday evening she had been in negotiations with HCEA President Randy Cerveny since the Dec. 6 public hearing on the bonus legislation. During the hearing, it was apparent the teachers were reluctant to sign off on the bonus deal because of their ongoing salary dispute.

She said Cerveny always had concerns about the union signing the MOU to accept the one-time payment, which she called a fairly generic, three-bullet template.

“Mr. Cerveny expressed to me that he believed it [the MOU] would affect the impending suit before the labor relations board,” Lisanti said, explaining she then had county attorneys confirm the county was not a party to that controversy.

“If in the fiscal year, if you give them more money, he thought it would confuse the labor relations board,” she said about Cerveny and the bonus agreement.

The amendments that seemed to please Cerveny arrived at the last minute, just before the council meeting, she said.

“I thought we were moving forward. That’s the basis of negotiation,” she said of the amendments.

Lisanti “absolutely” believed Cerveny would sign the MOU after the bill was passed. In fact, he got up at one point and thanked the council for “all you’ve done to make sure all Harford educators benefit from the county surplus.”

“That was our conversation from day one. My question has always been, ‘What’s it going to take to get you to sign the MOU?'” Lisanti said. “It certainly led everybody to believe that he [Cerveny] was going to… I feel that I was purposely misled – either purposely misled or somebody saw an opportunity to use a set of circumstances as a strategy to forward another agenda.”

Never would have signed

Earlier Monday, however, Cerveny questioned Craig’s attempt to control the distribution of bonus money and said his organization would never have signed the MOU anyway, but wanted to negotiate with the school system.

“No county executive in the state of Maryland can condition funds to a school system. That is a Maryland statute,” he said.

Asked why four other school unions apparently disagreed, Cerveny said he could not speak for the other unions.

He said HCEA may have been able to negotiate the bonus with the school system if the union had had more time after the council’s vote Dec. 13.

“I am reaching out to the county council and county executive to see if I can get this resolved,” he said about the veto situation.

“I have been getting all kinds of e-mails, many that are supportive and many that are vilifying me. Until this can be negotiated, there’s nothing we can do,” he said. “HCEA wants the teachers to get this money as much as they deserve it.”

At Monday night’s school board meeting, Cerveny did not address Craig’s veto on the bonus, but commented on a school system e-mail sent out regarding negotiations for the bonus.

Cerveny said he was “concerned” with the wording in that e-mail that stated the HCEA had elected not to respond to the school system’s offer to enter into negotiations. Cerveny said that the statement was not accurate.

He said that the morning of Dec. 14 he received an e-mail asking if the HCEA wanted to enter into negotiations regarding the bonus, but was unable to respond before the HCPS statement was released “less than four hours later.” Cerveny said to do so in that period of time would mean that county teachers represented by the union would have had to take time off from work to meet and discuss the matter.

“I didn’t realize your offer had a less than four hour time agreement,” Cerveny said. He added that he hopes the “lines of communication can be improved” between the school system and group.

‘Not collaborative and cooperative’

Craig said Friday that Cerveny had contacted him earlier only to ask for a copy of the veto but they had not discussed any particulars.

The county executive said he regretted that he tried to reach out to all unions, and “one of them was not collaborative and cooperative. Unfortunately that has pulled down four other unions.”

The timeline for resolving the issue and possibly reversing this latest development is unclear. Craig had said Friday he would wait until labor issues involving the teachers union’s last contract — the one before the labor board — are resolved before deciding whether to reintroduce the bonus funding legislation.

Check back with http://www.exploreharford.com for more updates on this continuing story.

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