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Will teachers stay to help fix schools?

September 18, 1997

When the Washington County school system released its curriculum audit earlier this month, board member Ed Hayes didn't downplay the host of management problems it uncovered. Even as he pledged to begin work on fixing it, he called the situation "our water and sewer crisis."

He was alluding the county's $50 million debt in that area. He didn't say it, but just as the county's debt problems won't be solved overnight, neither will the school system be able to quickly (or easily) correct the deficiencies the report uncovered.

One group that will play a key role in the system's transformation are the teachers, the people Hayes praised for "holding the system together." The audit report warns that because there are so many veteran teachers in the system, there is a potential for "mass teacher retirements."

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The key question, then, is this:

Will those veteran teachers buy into the upheaval that will come with another massive reorganization, or will they retire and take their years of classroom experience with them?

To find out, I called Sharon Chirgott, the newly elected president of the Washington County Teachers Association. Chirgott, a 23-year veteran who headed the Science Department at Northern Middle School, says she'll know more after she's been to two teacher meetings being set up by Theresa Flak, the assistant superintendent for instruction.

But she agreed there is a possibility that many teachers will retire in the next several years, because "we have the second-most-senior staff in the state, and there's so many people at the top."

But having the years in doesn't guarantee teachers will leave, she said, because there are many things to consider, including Maryland's poor pension system for teachers.

Maryland's State Retirement System officials in June said that the state provides the lowest retirement benefits of 47 states' teacher-retirement plans, in part because teachers don't contribute cash, as educators in other states do. A Maryland teacher making $40,000 at retirement would make $6,000 a year less than a colleague making forty grand in Virginia.

"There's an awful lot of considerations, including the pensions. You can't really say what thing is going to do it," she said.

Chirgott is in wait-and-see mode at this point, but likes what she's heard lately from Flak, who told me that one of the first things the system needed to do was boost teacher pay. Chirgott also noted that the county government posted a substantial surplus this year, which bodes well for raises in the next budget.

And Flak's statement about the need for the system to listen to teachers and rebuild their confidence in the system's top managers also struck a chord with Chirgott.

"I'm getting good vibes along that line," Chirgott said.

Though I've resolved - in my own writing, at least - not to get hung up on the question of how the system got into the this mess it's in, I asked Chirgott if there had been instances in the past when teachers' input had been disregarded.

"Yes, on things like textbook selection. On the middle school math books, we had input and it was kind of set aside," she said.

On the other hand, Chirgott said, she was able to see her input on the middle school science assessment used to develop something good.

An assessment is a way to measure "how well students have picked up what they're supposed to learn," she said.

Instead of putting together a multiple-choice test that would measure how well they grasped individual facts, Chirgott and others put together an assessment that measured how well students could use all the material they'd learned.

The premise was that students would act as quality-control inspectors in a toy factory, and measure certain things, like how fast a certain toy would roll.

"If they hadn't learned that speed equals distance divided by time, then they couldn't do it," she said.

To create successes like that system-wide, Chirgott said she needs to do two things. One is to remind people that WCTA is a professional association as well as a bargaining unit, and that in-service training is part of that. The other is persuading her members that in some cases, change is good thing.

"Change is difficult and people have to be willing to change. We're going to have to get teachers to buy into the process," she said.

It will take some political skills to get that point across, but for that Chirgott has some experience, since she's a 11-year veteran of the Funkstown Council.

She will use some of that savvy to push for her own members' needs, and for funding for program to assist poor readers lopped from the current year's budget.

"Reading is just critical. If you can't ready, you can't do anything. It's of primary importance," he said.

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