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letters to the editor for 7/28

July 28, 2002

Press, commissioners hindering education



To the editor:

As I approach the end of my term on the Board of Education in service to Washington County families and children, I would like to share some observations with my constituents and fellow citizens. Specifically, I would like to explain the reason that I am not seeking another term on the board.

My original purpose for serving was to help create an effective and efficient school system. I believe that my fellow board members and I have been able to attain this goal with the appointment of our new superintendent, Elizabeth Morgan. We have an excellent staff, including principals, teachers and support staff, and our students are making excellent progress toward high achievement.

We have an impressive school system that continues to show how much can be done in a short amount of time with the limited resources allotted to us. Naturally, every large organization makes mistakes, has its problems, and has areas where it needs improvement. However, our school system has fewer than most. I believe that it is now in good hands.

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I have learned a great deal during the past four years. Initially, I was told that being a member of the board would likely entail 15 hours of work weekly. Board members' duties demand at least 20 hours, and often 30 or more. I also have found that there are two crucial factors in particular which continue to impact the board and the county's public education system, and are a great source of frustration for me. The impact is negative and insidious.

One of these factors is the perception of the school system held by a few in our community and frequently exacerbated by the press; the other is our funding source.

We all know that a vigilant press is one of the cornerstones of a strong democracy. When the print media fulfills its proper civic duty and function for society, it can protect our community by exposing corruption, alerting us to elements that endanger our well-being, or uplifting us in times of perilous events. The press should be a principled watchdog of government and guardian of community values.

However, it can also be a dangerous tool with the potential to inflict long-term irreparable harm. It can act like the juvenile who yells "fire" in a crowded theater just to get attention. Sadly, the press in our county has been foolishly, even selfishly, short sighted by constantly firing up and fueling anti-public-school sentiments. Bit-by-bit, headline-by-headline, story-by-story, the press has recklessly and undeservedly chipped away at public confidence in an institution that is essential to overall economic growth, individual opportunity, and safety of the community.

Editorials and headlines that continually spin statements and events negatively, that are content to present half-truths as gospel, that are based on lack of understanding and poor research, that create public perceptions of problems that in reality do not exist, and that use print to carry out personal grudges in public, will affect our workforce, our businesses, and ultimately our prosperity, quality of life, and future as a community.

The press needs to use extreme caution and do some soul-searching when making those critical editorial decisions, lest short-term carelessness and sloppy journalism lead our community down the road toward long-term, unpleasant consequences that will be most difficult to reverse.

The second is the unwillingness of our funding source to provide our school system with the adequate resources needed to transform it into a world-class educational system.

How do our commissioners manage their fund balance? Approximately $13 million that were supposed to be saved for an economic downturn were not used in the economic downturn. When extra funds were received, they were used for pet projects instead of the unfunded budget items. These actions were buried in the paper with no glaring headlines or editorial comment. Washington County was one of two school districts out of the 24 in Maryland where local officials withheld the supplemental funds allotted by state law for underfunded school systems.

Or said in another way, where the school system was not receiving adequate funds based on the local wealth, i.e., "disparity" funds, there was no editorial outcry. Although the sitting commission increased educational funding, it is still not up to what funding was before the drastic cuts of the former board. The fact is that we have lost millions of dollars from the state over the last five years.

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