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Education issues: Unpleasant truths that must be told

August 02, 1998

Bob MaginnisOver the past two decades, the relationship between the Washington County school board and the County Commissioners has been strained at best.

It's due in part to the way each body works; the school board puts together a budget, but doesn't have any responsibility for funding it. The commissioners have to raise the cash, but have only limited authority to change the school budget. It's an ideal recipe for conflict.

Too often over the years, school board members have presented the commissioners with a budget they knew wasn't going to be fully funded. Instead of acknowledging that there was only so much money available, in the past some school board members have implied that commissioners who voted against full funding didn't care about the children.

For their part, some past commissioners responded with the charge that the money they provided was wasted, in part on the big salaries paid to those who work at the school board's headquarters on Commonwealth Avenue. At its worst, this argument became an appeal to envy, with some commissioners stirring up county residents against educators who made more money than the average county resident.

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These sorts of arguments haven't been made during the current campaign, but like one of those peasants in the old vampire movies, I want to keep a stake handy, in case one of these nonsensical attitudes pokes its head out of whatever coffin it's been consigned to.

The truth is more complicated, and school board and commissioner candidates who tell you it isn't aren't worth voting for. Here's a few truths that some might find unpleasant:

- A county that spends more than $60 million a year on tip jars and more than $75 per-person annually on state lottery tickets can afford to spend more on education. The voters haven't been willing to do that up to now because in the recent past it was possible to make a good living in manufacturing without higher education or advanced training.

When those industries started phasing down or cutting back, the community's political leaders should have sold citizens on the need to retrain for the future. They didn't, and now we have to play catch-up, or give up and resign ourselves to being a community where the best jobs involve running fork lifts.

- As the American family has deteriorated, and as more and more students who come to school not only aren't ready to learn, but aren't willing to sit quietly while others learn, schools are being asked to do the sort of character-building and manners training that was once done by the family.

When candidates talk about getting tough on disruptive students, they need to acknowledge that whipping them has been ruled out and that sending them to more intensive (and costly) behavior-modification classes is the only realistic alternative.

Don't want to spend that cash? Then get used to your children or grandchildren being distracted by Class Clown 2000, and paying for that same misfit's rehabilitation 20 years from now when he or she reaches the prison system.

- Teaching is a skill that at its best combines the ability to understand difficult material and teaching technique with the ability to perform and inspire. Everyone who believes that it's easy, or that summer vacation is an unearned (or unneeded) perk needs to sit in one of today's classrooms. Better yet, spend an hour making a presentation to a class. Then you can tell everyone how easy it is, provided, of course, that you survive.

- It is not a very well-kept secret that in addition to all the dedicated teachers in the system, there are some who have experienced burnout, or who should never have been admitted to the profession in the first place. Sometimes they're shifted from one school to another, in the hope that they'll mesh somewhere. As the emphasis on standards pushes the schools to emphasize excellence, someone needs to figure out how to humanely handle people who should no longer be in the classroom.

- State and federal law govern a lot of what happens in the schools, including everything from how many supervisors the system needs for every so many teachers to how often a child who's emotionally troubled can be suspended. Ask the candidate who wants to trim the number of supervisors or "boot out all the troublemakers" whether his or her plans are possible under the law, or just rhetoric.

- In the past, communication between the school board and the public hasn't always been handled properly. Even those who were asked to sit on citizen study groups sometimes complained that their input was ignored. Right now another such group, including many local business leaders, is working on a strategic plan to improve the school system. The one thing candidates for both commissioner and school board can do is to make certain this advice isn't ignored, or put up on the shelf.

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