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School budget update

April 21, 1999

Last week it began to sound as if Washington County citizens were in for another round of the same old budget battle between the county commissioners and the school board. Frustrated School Board President Edwin Hayes questioned the commissioners' commitment to education, while Commissioner John Schnebly replied that the school board might get more money if it would accept some performance standards.

This week it sounds as if Hayes and Schnebly may be asking for the same thing - accountability - in different ways. If both sides can keep talking, they just might reach an agreement everyone can live with.

Schnebly's position, explained in detail in an op-ed in last Sunday's Herald-Mail, is basically this: Agree to accept some measurable standard, like an increase in the average student's SAT score, for example, and I'll work to get you some extra cash.

To this, Hayes replies: If we try to push the system to improve in one area too quickly, we may get an artificial improvement that damages the system in the long run, much as so-called "miracle" drugs produce a quick weight loss that damages the body in other, unanticipated ways.

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That's not to say accountability isn't being built into the system, Hayes said, noting that the strategic plan's emphasis on lesson plans and "scope and sequence" - what should be taught and at what grade level - are meant to ensure that every student is learning the same thing at the same time.

Over time, the curriculum can be improved, Hayes said, to produce the results Schnebly seeks. But it's too early in the rebuilding process to say that the average SAT score can be bumped up 20 points in the next year.

Hayes' account suggests that the school board is like a mechanic, rebuilding an engine piece-by-piece, wary that pushing the process too fast might damage it. Schnebly represents the people who are buying the engine parts, and who reason that, since we're footing the bill, we ought to have some guarantee on how fast this thing is going to go, and how soon. It's a welcome departure from past discussions between these two bodies. Let the dialogue continue.

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