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Is the county school board trying to do too much?

June 28, 1998

Bob Maginnis

They're a group of 25 to 30 veterans of the Washington County school system, averaging more than 20 years as both teachers and/or administrators. But unlike many who retire and turn their attention to other matters, the Washington County Retired Administrators Association is still concerned about the fate of the local school system, and is actively trying to improve it.

How are they trying to improve it? By recruiting people they believe will make good members of the elected school board. But with the July 6 filing deadline approaching, they admit a bit sadly that although a number of candidates have filed, most whom they've talked to haven't.

At this writing, filed candidates include: B. Marie Byers, Gordon Crabb, Ross Cunningham, Phillip Goldman, Mildred Myers and Doris Nipps. If there are 10 candidates, there'll be a primary Sept. 15 to trim the number to 10 prior to the Nov. 3 general election.

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The administrators' group asked if they could be quoted as a group rather than as individuals, saying they were of one mind about the things they were telling me, but left it to my discretion as to whether to quote individuals. I didn't do that, because the ideas would deserve consideration even if they weren't coming from experienced educators. And anyone deeply interested in who they are can find out easily enough.

On to the issues: The group estimated that its members have talked to 55 or 60 local people about running, but described the responses as "minimal."

The low salary - $4,800 a year - is one problem, but the retired administrators told me the real problem for most people, esepcially those in the business world, is the time-consuming way the board operates.

With work sessions, they said, the board can meet up to four times per month, and for each meeting there are hundreds of pages of documents to be reviewed. As part of their research, group members also talked to school board members around the state and discovered that the Washington County board was spending three times as much time meeting as most other local boards.

And what are they spending so much time doing?

Micro-managing the system, the retirees said, instead of giving Superintendent Herman Bartlett Jr., direction and allowing him to do his job. One by-product of the change from an appointed to an elected board has been the increase in the number of parent calls that go to board members instead of to school officials.

One ex-principal told me ruefully that he'd had a board member question him about the process of selecting cheerleaders at his school! Others said they've been told by elected members that they feel a responsibility to those who elected them, to get citizens answers when they have questions.

There is a way to do that without undermining school officials, of course. But based on what I heard, in too many cases, board members have gone directly to principals or teachers with constituents' problems, leaving the school system's higher-ups to find out about it later. One retiree said that in meetings and social occasions around the state, the Washington County board's management style, educators are aware of (and frequently comment on) some board members' tendency to micro-manage.

Had they considered, I asked, advocating a move back to an appointed school board?

Many of the administrators, one retiree said, had worked under the appointed board here, and felt the fact that its members weren't elected was a plus. It was easier to attract business leaders to serve, they said, in part because there was no campaigning and because meetings ran in a business-like manner, with the board setting policy and the superintendent running the system.

Changing the way the board operates will require a strong superintendent who doesn't tolerate board interference in the day-to-day operations. Whether Bartlett is that person is unknown now, although some felt that he could be.

In exchange for giving up some of the day-to-day oversight, the administrators feel the school board ought to be doing more to sell the County Commissioners and even the county's delegation to the Maryland General Assembly on the school system's needs.

My thoughts: One reason for adding two members to the five-person board was so that the school board's workload wouldn't be so burdensome. Would it be better if everyone just agreed to do less?

What these retirees are saying is that the board is trying to do too many things, and not always the right things. Their ideal candidate is one who could approve the start of a new reading program, without having to personally review every textbook. Until this finger-in-every-pie management style changes, the retirees say, too many who might serve the school board system well won't do so because they believe it's an impossible job.

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