It's being called a crisis in Harford County. Teachers leaving the school system in droves. They say their contracts haven't been honored for five of the past six years, and starting salaries for teachers there are already among the lowest in the state.
Teachers say they initially came to Harford County because of the strong school system. But with salaries at a standstill and budget cuts year after year, they're not sure how the district will keep teachers or attract new ones.
Kathrina Black loves teaching. But love doesn't pay the bills for this 8th grade history teacher in Harford County.
"I'm 44 years old, I shouldn't have to work three jobs, and I'm tired," Black said. "And that's why I'm leaving."
Black is one of 270 teachers who've decided to leave or retire from the system this year. She said it's gotten to the point where she can't afford to live in the county anymore.
"We not only had a salary freeze, but we're being charged more for healthcare," she said. "Our salary is technically going down."
Teacher pay is determined on a step scale set by each district. With each year of experience and the earning of advanced degrees and certificates, their salaries are supposed to go up.
But Harford County teachers have been stuck on their steps for the past five out of six contracts. It has caused many teachers to miss out on thousands of dollars in pay.
"For me, it's about $10,000," said Ryan Burbey, president of the Harford County Education Association . "So over the course of a six-year salary freeze, I've lost upwards of $30,000."
As HCEA president, it's Burbey's job to advocate for teachers and negotiate contracts. In recent years, he has been put to the test.
"We're doing the best that we can to get them the benefit, to get language to help them, but we're doing all we can do," he said.
This year, the school district and teachers union negotiated a one percent cost of living raise and a step increase, plus a longevity increase for longtime teachers. But those expenses were ultimately cut from the budget, when the district didn't receive enough money to cover the increases.
"Our goal was to not lose positions in order to do that, we had to sacrifice a lot of things, including the salary and wage package, which I know, is a huge bone of contention," said Joe Licata, chief of administration for Harford County Public Schools .
Burbey said he feels cutting positions would've actually been a better option.
"We're on the edge of a catastrophe and while I don't want to see anyone lose their job, when you have 200 vacancies, no one has to lose their job," he said. "You just cut the positions."
Licata said teachers aren't the only ones feeling the hurt.
"We have 6,500 employees, they all suffer the same issues," he said. "When there's no improvement in salary, yet their own cost of living increased."
As of this week, 173 teachers have decided to leave the district. Another 97 are retiring. Those figures have been on the rise since 2010. Last year, 141 teachers left and 80 retired.
"It's really a tragic situation here," Burbey said. He went on to blame Harford County Executive David Craig for "refusing to increase school funding."
ABC2News took that accusation straight to Craig.
"We've been very stable in what we've been giving them," he said. "Can't give more if you don't have more. Especially if they take more from you."
Craig is referring to the state. Maryland's 24 school systems primarily receive their funding through two sources: The local and state governments, with a small percentage from the federal government.
While Harford County's funding of its schools has remained flat for the past four years, state funding for the district has steadily gone down since 2012.
Licata said the school system isn't getting enough money from any of its revenue sources, and year after year, operating expenses just keep going up.
"We have all got to figure out ways to generate additional revenue by whatever means, for the public school systems in the state if we expect them to deliver the same, high quality, educational services," he said.
Twenty-year veteran teacher Benjamin White said he's already seen the effects of the budget crisis, both inside and outside the classroom.
"I have to scale back what I'm doing with them because I don't have enough time to do it all, and that is a direct function of the number of people in the building," White said.
A number that just continues to go down, as another year goes by with no step increases and no raises.
"We're losing good people," Black said. "Because they know they're good and they know they can take those skills somewhere else where they're going to be appreciated."
"The thing that you care the most about, that you're passionate
about, that this is why you get up in the morning, this is why I get up in the morning and do this is because I love this job," White said. "This is going to make you lose your house and you won't be able to send your kids to college. That's not the kind of choice I want to make."
There could be changes on the way to how schools are funded here in the Maryland. The Maryland State Department of Education is required to review the current formula used to determine state education funding for each county. That study is supposed to start by June 30 and be completed by December 2016.
There will also be changes in leadership soon, with the elections this year for school board positions, the county executive and the governor.
Many people in Harford County are hopeful that changes in leadership will make a difference in school funding.