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Quick Comment

April 15, 1998

What should schools cut?




How do you want the Washington County school system to spend your tax dollars?

That's the topic of The Herald-Mail's latest "Quick Comment" feature, which deals with the county school system's budget for the upcoming year. Here are the facts:

In January, School Superintendent Herman Bartlett Jr. presented a $108 million budget plan, an increase of $6 million over the current budget. The increase would fund three priorities: The first part of a multi-year effort to improve teacher pay, 38 new teachers and a new elementary-school reading program.

The problem is, despite a recent decision to reduce the county's general-fund subsidy of water and sewer rates by $700,000, the county commissioners are still offering only $4 million in "new money" for the school system's operating budget and $415,000 to upgrade the schools' computer network. The county board voted to raise the property-tax rate by 10 cents in May of 1997, but is not likely to make any additional changes now, since it's an election year.

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So, barring some miraculous windfall, the school system will have to decide which of the three areas identified as priorities will be cut. They include:




Teacher pay improvement. In June of 1997, The Herald-Mail looked at teacher pay in the region and found that the county's $25,075 pay rate for starting teachers ranks 20th out of 23 Maryland counties and below what nearby Pennsylvania districts are paying. It is, however, ahead of West Virginia's pay rates.

For teachers with a master's degree at step 10, the local system ranks last in Maryland. If the system does not begin salary improvements, teachers would still get step raises, unless they've reached the top of the 25-year scale.

Adding personnel. The 38 new teachers are needed to ease crowding in the county's classrooms, although even with new teachers, the teacher-student ration will remain far short of the one-to-18 ideal.

The elementary reading program. This initiative was cut from last year's budget. It's an effort to identify and help students who have reading problems early, before they get discouraged and fall behind. If successful, it could save on remedial programs for older children and reduce the dropout rate.

The instrumental music program. This wasn't one of the board's priorities, but was added after a vigorous and sophisticated lobbying effort by parents and music teachers. It could cost $325,000, no paltry sum, but less than the other initiatives.

The county commissioners will take their budget to public hearing on Tuesday, April 28 at 7 p.m. at Hagerstown Junior College's Kepler Theater and adopt it on May 5. Then it will be up to the school board to make some tough decisions.

What do you think? Tell us, in 100 words or less, what should be cut from the school budget. Send your letters to Quick Comment, The Herald-Mail, 100 Summit Avenue, Hagerstown, Md., 21740. Letters can be faxed to (301) 714-0245, or e-mailed to news@herald-mail.com.

We need your letter by Monday, April 20 so replies can appear on Wednesday, April 22.

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