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Howard teachers feel betrayed by planned cuts

The recession’s effect on public policy produced a celebratory groundbreaking Monday for a new $49 million health sciences building at Howard Community College, two days after county teachers gathered to complain to legislators about proposed pension reductions and school budget cuts.

The college’s new 112,776-square-foot health sciences building has been in the works for years, and both county and state officials said they are glad that each branch of government still has enough capital budget money to push the project forward. The building is to open in 2013.

“If we are going to come roaring out of this recession, it’s because of places like HCC,” County Executive Ken Ulman told a crowd of more than 100 who gathered for the frigid morning’s event.

Over four years, the state will pay $23.7 million and the county will put up $25.5 million. The building will allow expansion of programs to train nurses, therapists and other medical professionals who are in demand. Del. Elizabeth Bobo made a similar point by noting that the building means more chances for people at the bottom of the economic ladder to receive training and improve their lives.

The Horizon Foundation donated $356,000 to enable the college to hire four faculty members early to begin organizing new medical and dental courses, and Ken and Marie Kittelberger donated $125,000 to pay for four simulation labs in the building.

Gov. Martin O’Malley’s proposed state budget could cost the county up to $5 million in new state aid cuts — split between county schools and general government, according to Ulman and Ray Brown, chief financial officer for county schools. But Ulman said it’s important to realize that the new cuts come on top of state cuts from previous years, notably the continuation of last year’s 95 percent cut in highway repair funds worth about $16 million. He, like teachers union president Ann DeLacy, said he’s grateful the cuts to education aren’t worse, however.

“It’s not as draconian as we thought it would be,” DeLacy said.

Still, she and the dozens of county teachers at the annual Howard County Education Association legislative breakfast Saturday were singing a far different tune from what Howard Community College President Kate Hetherington did on Monday.

After 25 years of teaching, Worthington Elementary School fourth-grade teacher Stacy Harris feels betrayed by proposed pension reforms, and she stood up and delivered her message to a group of Howard County elected officials.

Harris said she long ago gave up thoughts of other professions partly because of the extra security that a teaching job offered, only to find out now that retirement security may be dropping away.

She isn’t alone.

“We’ve kept our promises,” Maryland State Education Association official Mary Jo Neville of Dayton told a crowd of more than 100 educators and elected officials at the Homewood School off Route 108. “We’ve made [Maryland] schools No. 1 three years in a row.”

“We need you to keep your promises,” she said to the five Howard General Assembly members — all Democrats — who attended.

“We’re living a little bit of fear,” Harris said. “We’re people whose salaries are frozen. We can’t go back” and make new career choices.

The teachers’ contribution to their pensions, which average about $17,000 a year, rose from 2 percent to 5 percent four years ago, said Bill Brown, a Montgomery County teacher who serves on the state pension board. Now O’Malley is proposing school employees pay 7 percent to avoid a cut in pension payments. Brown said teacher pensions were funded at 102 percent of projected costs in 2001, but the state failed to make required payments and when the economy faltered, the funding level dropped. Now it is about 68 percent of what is owed teachers.

Teachers also complained that the schools evaluate teacher performance so heavily based on students’ test scores that the kids sometimes threaten to do poorly just to upset a teacher. Former union president Joe Staub said a teacher came to him in tears because four students sat only five minutes for a test and walked out. “She will be evaluated on those kids and their performance,” Staub said.

The legislators, including delegation chairs state Sen. James N. Robey and Bobo, plus Dels. Guy Guzzone, Frank S. Turner and Shane Pendergrass, were sympathetic but offered no promises. County Council Chairman Calvin Ball, an east Columbia Democrat, also attended, as did Democrats Mary Kay Sigaty and Jen Terrasa, in addition to school board members. The officials held small table discussions with handfuls of teachers, shifting from table to table during the more than two-hour event.

“I don’t think any legislator in this room questions adequately funding education,” said Robey. “It’s been a priority to the governor and for the legislature and it was a priority for me as county executive.”

Pendergrass made another point. “I hear from people who are not teachers who say, ‘I don’t have a pension,'” she said, noting that defined benefit pensions that pay a steady amount every month are being phased out in private business.

“We’re very fortunate the governor has agreed to level-fund education this year,” Turner told a group. “Level-funding” means $94 million less than expected for schools statewide, however. “We haven’t fallen behind like so many other places have,” Turner added.

“I know there is a lot of fear. We can sense it,” Bobo said, vowing to work toward closing corporate tax loopholes and boosting liquor taxes to increase state revenue.

“The idea is not to panic,” said Guzzone, who serves on the House Appropriations Committee. He warned that some people want to use the recession as an excuse to make huge budget cuts, but he believes minor adjustments will do the trick.

“I personally think it’s the right tack right now,” he said.

larry.carson@baltsun.com