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Editorial - The $4 million question

March 31, 1998

If last week's budget workshop is a true indication of their feelings, the Washington County Commissioners will probably fund about half the county school system's request for new money, putting educators' raises, 38 new teaching slots and a new elementary reading program in jeopardy.

It's time for citizens to decide if they're willing to fight for these programs, because unless citizens lobby the county board, the commissioners are unlikely to put more than $4 million in new money into the system.

Fully funding the school system budget as presented by Superintendent Herman Bartlett Jr. would require $8.6 million in new county funds. About $3 million of that would go toward a proposal to enhance teacher salaries here, which for starting teachers now rank 20th when compared to the state's 23 counties and Baltimore City. Without this enhancement, teachers would still get a 3 percent raise, but a multi-year proposal to improve the pay scale here would be put off for at least another year.

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The new teaching positions were put in the budget to cut down on overcrowded classrooms in the system, important because research shows a lower teacher/student ratio improves students' ability to learn and because students today (as opposed to those of earlier generations) need more supervision. The proposal for 38 new positions is a compromise; getting the student/teacher ratio down to 18-to-one would require 86 new teachers and that many new classrooms.

The elementary reading program is similar to one that was whacked from last year's budget. It would provide extra reading help to students before they fall so far behind that they get discouraged and drop out.

None of these proposals is frivolous, but without some citizen input, the commissioners will be reluctant to dip into the county's $4 million surplus to fund them. Now that the system has faced its problems (with a tough curriculum audit) and hired a new superintendent, does it make sense to deny school officials the funds they need to continue with these reforms?

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