Full plate of issues greets board candidates

August 02, 2000

Full plate of issues greets board candidates

It's August now, and the national political conventions are awakening citizens to the fact that there'll be a national election in just four months. But perhaps just as important, November will also bring an election to fill four seats on the Washington County Board of Education. If you think who wins doesn't matter, consider some of the issues:

- This year the school system got about $65 million of Washington County's $121 million budget, including almost $5 million in new money.

- Next year the system plans to add all-day kindergarten, at a cost yet to be determined.

- Many parents of special-education students (and one Washington County Circuit Court judge) are getting upset over how such children are being schooled. If you believe that they will be pacified easily, you are wrong.

- Harold Phillips, a person unknown to the general public, crunched some numbers and determined that compared to the average Maryland county, we operate far too many schools, with a performance below what you'd expect given the smaller schools. The County Commissioners are intrigued, but persuading parents to accept consolidation and/or a change in configuration (making some schools kindergarten through grade 2, for example) will require the wisdom of Solomon squared.


- Despite an increase in last year's school budget, 27 aides in the Title I program were eliminated, because after raises were factored in and the financial pie was sliced up, there wasn't enough cash to keep them. Since Title I serves the most economically disadvantaged students, I expect problems, including more burnout by the teachers who'll have to deal with the problems these kids bring to school without the help of those aides. Had this happened in Prince George's County, for example, the ACLU would have filed suit, charging discrimination by the haves against the have-nots.

- Though they've gotten some nice raises since his arrival, something about Superintendent Herman Bartlett Jr. seems to rub teachers the wrong way. Maybe it's his insistence on lesson plans for each class, so that a student in a 10th grade history class in Hancock is (roughly) on the same page as a student in Hagerstown. Bartlett's contract will be up for renewal during the term of this next board, so it's important to get members who are skilled at evaluating performance.

- And speaking of teachers' issues, there's the lament that the Maryland School Performance Assessment Program tests have become so tied to state funding that teachers are forced to teach to the test. Many believe there are already too many tests even without the promised high school assessment, which students would have to pass to graduate.

What happens to those students who don't pass? Unless senior year becomes one long prep course for the test, there'll have to be some remedial classes available, unless, of course, we want to let those who fail drop out.

- The Washington County Public School Foundation, begun with great fanfare in 1996, is dormant now, and has less money than it began with. Placing blame for that is less important than reviving it, and school board members can (and should be) rallying the business community to do that.

No one should take this list as an assessment that nothing good is happening in the county school system. After a curriculum audit by Phi Delta Kappa International found problems in the system, educators and business leaders developed a master plan for improvement, much of which has been implemented.

Test scores are increasing, new "academies" have been created for students heading for careers in manufacturing, finance and medicine and an elementary-school reading-improvement program has been implemented. The county's vo-tech program has been revamped with vigorous new leadership and the local cable TV system carries the school board's deliberations.

Good things all, no doubt. My point in raising these issues is that the job is far from done and many important matters will need to be addressed in the next term.

It will not be enough for the candidates to say "I care about the kids," unless they've done some research to back up that caring spirit with some action. This is not a contest about who has the biggest heart, but about who can turn their concerns into plans and solutions.

And please don't tell me about the way it used to be, and how we should go back to the good old days. In those days, most children came to school ready to learn, and they knew how to behave in a group because they'd learned those skills in church, Scouts or similar settings. Many of today's families are different, and the schools are increasingly being called on to replace what has been lost, and to provide everything from a nutritious breakfast to psychological counseling.

For the pittance the job pays - less than $10,000 - I sometimes wonder why anyone would serve on the school board. But as important as it is, to our pocketbooks and our future, we cannot afford to take this race lightly.

In the next month or so, I'll take a look at who's running and tell you what I know about them. Please stay tuned.

Bob Maginnis is editorial page editor for The Herald-Mail newspapers.

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