By ALLYSON DICKMAN
WASHINGTON (Oct. 16, 2008)—A threat to make counties responsible for teacher pensions has made slots backers out of agitated educators.
Gov. Martin O'Malley's administration is looking into a call to turn pension plans over to counties for funding responsibility.
To keep pensions a state responsibility, teacher unions are encouraging members to vote on Nov. 4 for the slots referendum, which will allow 15,000 slot machines to be placed in five specific sites.
"The simple answer is (the counties) can't afford to pay for the shift in retirement responsibility," said David Bliden, executive director of Maryland Association of Counties. "It's a reality check. The funding costs the state in excess of $600 million."
O'Malley's administration has projected $650 million in revenue from slots, with more than half of it to be put in the Education Trust Fund.
"There hasn't been a plan B set in place if the slots referendum were to not pass," said Shaun Adamec, O'Malley's spokesman. "Most education funding in Maryland is legally mandated ... the state would have to figure out another way to fund it, and that's obviously very difficult to do."
MACO fears having to cut into other county budgets if the referendum doesn't pass.
"That being the case, you're pitting teachers versus police versus public health, all who provide critical services," Bliden said.
Maryland State Teachers Association, the largest teachers union in Maryland, also decided to support the referendum because of the weakening economy, said Daniel Kaufman, spokesman for MSTA.
"Local school districts are getting very nervous because they're seeing what's happening on the economy side and what's happening with their revenues," Kaufman said. "Despite the qualms that people have about slots... they also have very big concerns about being able to continue making those investments in public schools."
On Wednesday, the Board of Public Works ordered up nearly $350 million in cuts from this year's budget, cutting across nearly every department and agency to close a budget shortfall.
MSTA and other teachers don't believe slots will fully solve education's financial crisis.
"We have a problem that's more immediate than slots money would even address because first of all, we don't know if the projection for slots is real," said Bonnie Cullison, president of the Montgomery County Education Association. "I think the state is just looking for all different kinds of ways to save big amounts of money and this is an easy target."
The threat of county pension responsibility comes at a time when budgets are facing pressure from high fuel prices, an influx of students and state funding cuts.
For example, Montgomery County Public Schools has projected a $250 million budget shortfall for next year and may have to renegotiate teacher contracts.
"It's time to make some difficult choices," said Steven Simon, spokesman for Montgomery County Public Schools, "90 percent of our budget is basically in the salaries and compensation, so that's always where you have to take a look when you're in a difficult fiscal situation."
A claim that teachers might not receive a promised 5.3 percent raise was deemed premature by the Montgomery County Education Association.
The union, school board and superintendent are still in meetings discussing salaries and the budget deficit, said Cullison.
"I worry about teachers leaving if we don't get raises simply because of the cost of living here," Cullison said. "I've got about 30 percent of my members who are commuting from out of the county... And you know what? They need teachers in other counties in Maryland."
The county has already frozen money for materials and decreased instructional assistants and professional development. The county might also face larger class sizes with more budget cuts.
Baltimore County Public Schools voted against a 2 percent cost-of-living allowance for teachers, added to the end-of-the-year salary, in a closed meeting on Sept. 23.
"This is now a series of things they're doing that appear anti-employee," said Cheryl Bost, president of the Teachers Association of Baltimore County.
On Oct. 7, five labor organizations, including TABCO, protested the decision and the board's recommendation to use only one retirement plan provider.
TABCO and other public employees hired arbiters and found the county has enough money to add the 2 percent COLA. Multiple retirement providers would not cost the county additional money.
"The county has the money to pay for employee salary increases, it's a matter of reprioritizing their top priorities," Bost said. "So we've continued to say, why do you need to fund new programs in the county which should first be invested in our employees?"
Baltimore County has one of the lowest starting teacher salaries, ranked 13th, in Maryland and a turnover rate of about 1,000 teachers a year, the second highest in the state.
Less populous counties are feeling similar fiscal strain and are exploring budget options over the next few weeks before making decisions.
Capital News Service contributed to this report.