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Nearly all of the educators at the St. Mary’s school board’s budget forum last week called for more money from the county commissioners for what they said was needed to keep the public school system strong.

“If we don’t tell people what we need, they’ll never know,” Sharon Page, a school nurse, said. “Please just ask for what we need from the board of county commissioners.”

Page, whose husband is a teacher, said the school board needs to stop playing the game with the commissioners. She said the commissioners look greedy based on the relatively low levels of school funding compared to many other counties, but she has faith in her elected leaders.

Superintendent Michael Martirano last month proposed to the school board an operating budget of $192.3 million for fiscal year 2014, approximately 5 percent more money than the current year. He said that while his proposal does meet “the minimum needs” of the school system, he had already trimmed millions during budget planning that would have been used to hire even more additional staff and allow the board to offer higher raises to help retain employees and boost morale.

The budget as proposed calls for a $7 million funding increase from the county, as well as $874,000 more from the state. The superintendent also proposes to use $2 million from the school board’s own fund balance, twice what it used in the current budget.

Those increases would go primarily toward teacher and other school employee raises, about 30 new jobs and increases in health-care costs.

School officials have said they are working toward a 1 percent raise as well as step pay raises for teachers and other school staff. Contract negotiations between the school board and unions are under way and include talks on compensation. Several educators lamented that they were denied step increases based on years of service for two years.

Gary Robinson, a math teacher at Spring Ridge Middle School, put out a passionate plea to the school board, saying that he loves his job and the students he teaches.

“But, I’m afraid for Spring Ridge. I’m afraid for the teachers there. I’m afraid for the students there,” he said. Getting students to graduation takes talent and energy and has become more difficult as programs are cut, resources diminished and salaries stagnate, giving teachers a reason to move elsewhere, he said.

Trish Barry-Utzig, a mother of two students in the school system and a special education teacher at Park Hall Elementary School, said teachers and other educators should get the raises they deserve, especially when a “greedy”local government is sitting on such a large surplus year after year.

She asked why she and her family have to make cuts to their household budget in such a wealthy county, and wants to see that the work she does matters locally.

“I really used to think support of education was a no-brainer,” environmental educator Margarita Rochow said. She, too, urged the school board to ask for more funding. “Education is a great investment,” she said.

Liz Leskinen, UniServ director and school union negotiator, said the school board needs to stop playing nice and demand more money from the commissioners.

“We’re living proof that nice guys finish last,” Leskinen said. “The board of education is not the enemy. Public education is not the enemy.”

Anna Laughlin, Education Association of St. Mary’s County president, reiterated the comments, saying, “You’ve been playing nice and we’re not getting what we need.” She said teachers are in a “never-ending struggle” to do even the basics of their jobs, and they need to be compensated fairly.

Courtney Dowling, a union negotiator, spoke on behalf of school support staff. She said people in those positions are struggling financially, and some are unable to afford medical care for their family or are taking extra jobs to make ends meet.

Parent Terri Griest said she was speaking for the seventh year in a row at a budget forum, this time advocating for what she called twice exceptional students, like one of her children, who have special education needs but also have high academic abilities.

“We’ve made a lot of strides forward ... But in keeping with the continuous improvement model, we can’t stop there,” Griest said, saying that the programs for such students need to be expanded.

Jeff Thompson, the schools’ director of transportation, spoke on behalf of the new union for school supervisors and administrators. “I think it’s critical that we, as a school system, recruit and maintain quality people in these positions,” Thompson said.

Martirano addressed the crowd after the meeting, urging them to continue their advocacy. He said that he and the school board respect the county’s teachers and do everything they can to treat them fairly.

I ask you ... to fight the good fight with me for one more time,” Martirano said.

jyeatman@somdnews.com