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Schools must stress quality, not dollars

May 04, 2000

Like the British "redcoats" encountering the American Revolution's patriots for the first time, the Washington County School Board was unprepared this year for the guerilla warfare they faced from a couple of number crunchers, one well-known and one not.

And like the British, who were slow to change their tactics, the school board was slow to answer its critics and watched its hopes for a fully-funded budget, with $6.5 million in "new" money, cut down to $4.3 million.

The first shot came from County Commissioner William Wivell, an accountant for Allegheny Energy for more than 10 years. Wivell said that contrary to what the school board had been saying - that Washington County's per-pupil expenditures were 23rd out of Maryland's 24 major school system - his numbers showed that the system was 16th in terms of per-pupils expenditure.

Given our limited resources, Wivell said, "it would appear that Washington County does a pretty good job at funding the school system, given the limited resources available,"

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The second blow came from Harold Phillips, a Clear Spring resident and former employee of the Maryland Department of Economic and Community Development.

Boiled down, Phillips' argument is that compared to other school systems, Washington County operates many more school buildings. And the benefit that should come from smaller schools - greater attention to pupils' needs - hasn't resulted in higher test scores, Phillips said.

Phillips says that 75 percent of all Maryland public school systems operate with fewer teachers and 71 percent of the systems have fewer schools, yet here "student performance as measured by SAT scores (is) marginal at best."

School system officials found it easier to deal with Wivell's arguments than with Phillips'. Their key objection is to Wivell's use of median income as a measure of a community's wealth.

Phil Ray, the school system's Human Resources Director, said that as one measure of community wealth, median income a yard stick, but that figure doesn't include significant other measures of community wealth, such as real estate, corporate income and personal property.

The fallacy of using median income as the only yardstick of community wealth is shown by a look at Worcester County, Ray said, which ranks third in the state in per-pupil spending, even though their median income is only $31,100 as compared to $38,600 in Washington County.

How do they do it? Worcester County includes Ocean City, Md., with millions of dollars worth of beachfront property that can be taxed to fund local schools.

The "local wealth" index used by the state measures "a county's ability to raise tax revenue," according to Chris South, the school system's finance director.

School system officials also take issue with Wivell's use of debt service of $4.8 million as part of his "local funding" figure, with South saying it shouldn't be factored in because it's not money that can be spent directly on students. The same goes for money that goes to capital improvements, he said.

Though the school system submitted its budget six weeks earlier than usual this year, it's obvious that prior to next year, both the commissioners and the school board need to agree on which set of numbers they'll use as a starting point in their negotiations.

Paul Bailey, the current school board president, takes it a step further, saying that the two boards need a day-long retreat to talk out some of these issues. Perhaps, said Ed Hayes, but with a third party on hand to mediate such a meeting.

As for Phillips' arguments about how many schools the system operates, school officials admit that over time, there's been a commitment to community schools - and an emotional outcry in those communities - Dargan, for example- where schools have been closed.

Talk about consolidation "on the surface sounds fine," Hayes said, but added that the system has a 95 percent utilization rate on its current buildings.

If the system wants to consolidate, Hayes said, "then we have to build something new."

And, Ray said, in some cases consolidation will be difficult because of the county's topography.

"We are geographically diverse and challenged," he said.

The commissioners have apparently bought into Phillips' argument, however, to the extent that after passing a tax increase on Tuesday, they asked the school system to come up with a new business plan within 120 days that looks at these issues.

Commissioner John Schnebly said the commissioners don't expect an instant turnaround, but over the long term, the system needs to reduce its fixed costs - and running more schools than necessary increases those costs - to free up cash for teacher salary improvements.

All of this will require a campaign to educate the community about how much extra the current system costs.

Finally, educators should abandon the argument that schools are is "owed" a certain percentage of the county budget. Frankly, that doesn't ring my bell. Tell citizens what their dollars will buy - more counselors, smaller class sizes, the best graduates of education colleges - and they'll be more willing to support school spending in the future.

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