• Straight from the Supt.

  • Serving Students Well Requires a Selfless Mindset 

    By Mark T. Bedell, Ed.D.
    January 5, 2024

    Bedell in various picturesIn delivering my Fiscal Year 2025 budget recommendation to the Board of Education on December 20, I clearly articulated the difficult challenges we face in the upcoming year. Reductions in state funding to which we are accustomed and the sunset of COVID-related grant funding, increases in state mandates from the Blueprint for Maryland’s Future, the opening of three new schools, rising health-care costs, the ongoing need to compensate employees to support students and the requirement of County government to address the myriad needs of other agencies serving Anne Arundel residents create a perfect budgetary storm ripe for frustration.

    “The days of school systems being flush with funds are over,” I said in my budget address. “We can no longer just think or even work outside the proverbial box. We must build new boxes as we innovatively confront the difficult challenges of increasing academic achievement, retaining quality employees, and addressing issues such as rising health-care costs. None of this is easy, and as I have said to our union leadership and others: Everybody can’t get everything they want.”

    I urged collaboration, both inside our school system and with the County Executive and County Council.

    “That’s what we need through this process: advocacy for sure, but awareness that there is a greater good to be achieved. That’s how we will move our school system – and, most importantly, our county – forward.”

    The 3.71 percent budget increase I recommended includes a step increase for eligible employees, a 3 percent cost-of-living adjustment for all employees, continuation of a $2,000 special education bonus and a request for nearly 200 additional positions to address student needs and staff workload issues. It is prudent, pragmatic, reasonable, and recognizes the reality of the county’s fiscal situation. As Anne Arundel County Budget Officer Chris Trumbauer told the Board in his presentation this week, the County has tried to be generous in compensation enhancements to school system and County workers over the last two years to cover cost-of-living increases. As inflation recedes and COVID-related funding dries up, more difficult decisions will have to be made.

    Prior to my budget address, members of my team met with the leadership of our four employee bargaining units, including the Teachers Association of Anne Arundel County (TAAAC), to provide an unprecedented comprehensive insight into the budgetary landscape. It is part of the transparency and collaboration I believe is critical to the success our school system. While leadership from the other three unions had questions and offered commentary, TAAAC’s leadership had no questions and offered no comment.

    I was stunned, therefore, to return this week from the winter break and learn the TAAAC leadership– not teachers but union leadership – had used the words “disappointed” and “discouraged” to describe my recommendation.

    “We call on the Superintendent to reexamine this budget and give our teachers what they deserve,” union leadership wrote in a news release which they did not provide to me; I learned about it from others.

    Since my arrival, I have fought hard and loud for every single one of our employees. At Listening and Learning Tour stops around the county I didn’t just call the compensation gap between our first-year teachers and other counties “embarrassing,” I worked tirelessly to do something about it. The message resonated and those of all political mindsets joined forces as, together, coalesced around a clear top priority. Thanks to them and the partnership of the County Executive and County Council, we went from 19th in starting teacher salary to fourth in a single year. At the outset of this school year, our first-year special education teachers were the highest paid in the state.

    Our efforts have also reduced workload for teachers across the county. At the beginning of last school year, there were 300 classroom teaching vacancies. This year, there were 168 vacancies and in December that number fell below 100.

    We have rectified issues around our learning management system, Brightspace, provided two bonuses of up to $1,000 for our employees, using savings from a high number of vacancies some of those same employees were asked to cover a year ago but no longer need to, and instituted a virtual work day on the Tuesday before Thanksgiving.

    Our work since my arrival only continues what was done before me. Thanks to the collective and bipartisan work of the school system and County Government, all lost steps have been recovered in the last five years. Over the last two years, nearly $133 million in compensation increases have been provided to AACPS employees. Compensation for most employees has risen 14 percent in that same time span as we have fought to eradicate their pay gaps. That’s over and above the 5 percent included in the FY2025 budget recommendation.

    Top flight health-care benefits have also been protected. My FY 2025 recommendation includes a $17 million increase in the employer contribution to health care to address rising costs and protect the current level of service provided to employees.

    What is contained in my recommendation for the coming year in no way backtracks from my commitment to fight for our employees. Rather, it is a reaction to and a reflection of reality.

    In return for the transparency and fierce advocacy I promised, I asked from the leadership of our bargaining units one thing: reciprocal respect. That appears to have fallen on deaf ears when it comes to TAAAC. That’s beyond unfortunate and it runs counter to what teachers in our classrooms tell me when I talk to them on school visits. The morale in our schools is unmistakably better this year than it was a year ago. I see it, sense it, and hear it.

    I wish no war with the leadership of any of our bargaining units. We need to be in the same boat rowing together, even when we may have small disagreements. We also need to be cognizant of the bigger picture that exists at the County level. In a county of fixed means, additional funding to the school system and our employes means a reduction somewhere else. It’s a zero-sum game, and that tide must turn at some point.

    This situation is not one we are facing alone. School systems across Maryland and the nation are facing similar or even more dire predicaments. Some are looking at funding reductions of more than $100 million. We are not in that boat because we and our County have planned prudently and laid a solid foundation from which we can weather storms.

    If we are to continue to move our school system and our county forward, however, we must do it together. In times of fiscal constraints, that togetherness must include a global view of the issues and realistic expectations that are focused on our students, not divisive rhetoric from union leadership that drives away the very people we’re trying to attract.

    "Straight! from the Supt.," featuring information about key school system issues directly from Superintendent of Schools Dr. Mark Bedell, is published periodically in this space.