Consolidation shows promise, cautiously

May 19, 2000

Bob Maginnis

In my column of May 4, I compared Harold Phillips to an American patriot in the Revolutionary War, engaged in battle with a school board bureaucracy which, like the British "Redcoats" of the 1770s, didn't know quite what to make of his number-crunching guerilla warfare.

For a guy who's come out of nowhere (politically speaking) the Clear Spring resident and former employee of the state economic development department has had remarkable success in getting his point across.

And his point, delivered to the County Commissioners in two detailed presentations, complete with spread sheets, is that compared with most other Maryland school systems, Washington County operates more school buildings and has a higher number of teachers for its student population.


And the benefit you might expect from smaller schools - greater attention to students' needs - hasn't resulted in higher test scores, Phillips says.

The County Commissioners were impressed. They ordered the school system to deliver a plan for consolidation within 120 days. The cash Phillips says the system could save is considerable - more than $10 million annually - which would go a long way toward boosting teacher pay here.

But getting this far this fast hasn't made Phillips happy. After we talked for more than an hour about his analysis, he was disappointed that I wouldn't endorse it until I first talked to school officials. And he didn't like the headline on my column, which said, "Schools must stress quality, not dollars."

He scolded me about that in a note, which appears in full elsewhere on this page. It accuses me and The Herald-Mail of refusing to back substantive change to get quality schools.

To that charge, I plead "not guilty," but even assuming that he's 100 percent correct, I'm not sure there's an easy way to get from where we are to where he wants us to be.

As school officials pointed out to me, Washington County has been committed to the idea of smaller neighborhood schools since the late Lem Kirk was president of the County Commissioners 25 years ago.

With the exception of Cascade Elementary, most of those schools are at 90 percent or more of their capacity, so it isn't as if there's a lot of empty space to move students into. And many of these schools are old, so officials would be faced with the choice of renovating some to double their size, or building new schools.

In recent years the county has failed to pony up enough dollars to match all the state construction cash that's been available, so a big new building program (with a lot of bonded debt) is unlikely, at least until the sewer debt is paid down a bit.

But given the amount of work Phillips has put into this proposal, and the fact that the commissioners have bought into its major premise, the school board needs to do the following things:

- Look at the research on how the size of a school affects student performance. A few years ago, a University of Michigan study analyzed nine years' worth of West Virginia high school data and found that the optimum size for a high school was 900 students. Certainly there must be comparable research on the best sizes for elementary and middle schools.

- Analyze existing buildings and determine which are amenable to renovation and/or expansion, a process that might be made easier by changing the configuration of grades, as suggested by school board candidate Bernadette Wagner recently. Some elementary schools might be changed to kindergarten through grade 2, while others would house third, fourth and fifth graders.

- With county planners' help, look at possible sites for future construction, if such are needed.

- Consider the possibility that other factors contribute to the county's lower-than-desirable educational performance. The Herald-Mail's editorial page advisory board is rarely unanimous, but this cross-section of citizens does agree that education is not valued nearly enough by most local students or their parents.

That attitude was overcome at Salem Avenue Elementary, which went on to become a blue-ribbon school of excellence. And it also should be noted that Salem's school's fifth graders have been sent to Western Heights Middle School.

Does that say something about school size, the configuration of grades, or is it irrelevant? I don't know, but it does seem to me that like the late Rachel Carson, author of "Silent Spring," the ground-breaking book about America's environmental problems, Phillips has also uncovered a significant truth about how local schools operate and how millions might be saved. But as veterans of the environmental movement can attest, uncovering the truth is only the start of what must be done to bring about significant change.

Bob Maginnis is editor of The Herald-Mail's Opinion page.

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