Getting the advice I need, on schools and readers

November 20, 1998

Every month a group of eight dedicated local people, who get paid nothing for their trouble, get together to act as a citizens advisory panel for The Herald-Mail's editorial page. In two short hours, they teach me, over and over again, that listening is the best way to learn.

The group's special focus has been education and the idea that local people - parents and students - don't understand how important it is to this region's economic well-being. And so it was natural for me to ask their advice on how to cover the strategic plan for the school system recently produced by a group of more than 100 local educators and businesspeople.

Even if you don't have children in school, the plan will affect you, because it calls for $13 million in new spending over the next five years, for facilities, programs and staffing. But since it was released the first week of September, there've been just two public hearings, and my great fear is that the ordinary people who are not PTA officials - the soccer moms and Little League dads - have no idea what this plan involves.


Consider Strategy 1, which proposes that the school system "develop equitable, contemporary curriculum expectations with measurable needs and goals that meet the needs of the students..."

Translated into ordinary language, it seems to mean that the school system should give students the most up-to-date material possible, that the lessons should be the same in schools in Hancock or Hagerstown and that the program should prepare students for the work force or additional training. Oh yes, and there should be a way to test how well the system is working.

How will all that be accomplished? How, for example, will the people who design the American history lessons decide what facts are taught and which ones are left out?

That was the dilemma I presented to the advisory board, which suggested that I not try to write one humongous piece, but instead break it up into a series of articles readers would find it easier to digest.

And then one member alerted me to a possibility I hadn't considered: Some people are going to support this plan based on the premise that an improved educational system will yield better-paying and more challenging jobs. But unless there's a method of retraining those who are already in the work force, there may be some deep disappointments down the road, and resentments over the money spent.

It's just one additional question I'll be asking the people who wrote this plan, and another insight I'm indebted to my advisory group for giving me.

The second item we discussed this month was a letter sent by Judy Lyons Wolf, co-chair of Women at The Table, a group set up to promote the political involvement of women in Washington County. Wolf took exception to the fact that The Herald-Mail did not endorse any of the women running for county commissioner.

"Women at The Table, a bipartisan group, was founded two years ago because of the attitude your endorsements so starkly present. The record in Washington County for the inclusion of anyone but men has been dismal."

For the record, Herald-Mail endorsed Linda Irvin-Craig when she first ran for commissioner and backed Mary Wilfong and Dori Nipps this time for the school board and Sue Hecht for District 3 delegate. I don't believe The Herald-Mail editorial page is anti-female, nor did two of the three woman who serve on the advisory board. (The third was out-of-town the night we discussed this.)

But given the fact that some major research done over the past 10 years suggests that many women don't find that newspapers in general are geared to their interests, we're concerned enough to inquire further into the matter.

In a week or so, after our local cartoonist Rob Rock does a special illustration, we'll ask women readers to comment on this topic: Does The Herald-Mail editorial page pay enough attention to women's concerns? If not, what are we missing?

Finally, as good as this group is, we began with a dozen members, and have lost about four over the past year. For some, the demands of their jobs or other boards they served on proved to be too much. Our youngest member went away to college and one woman who said she'd like to be a member never showed up for any meetings, and won't answer phone calls about why.

We're looking for four or five new members, and you'll have an edge if you're a college student, a person of color or a single mother. None of those groups are represented on the board now, although we hope many folks in those groups read The Herald-Mail.

If you'd like to join us, send a letter of 250 words or less telling me why to Editorial Page Advisory Committee, in care of Bob Maginnis, The Herald-Mail, P.O. Box 439, Hagerstown, Md., 21741.

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