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School problems could be fixed if they'd only try

April 14, 2003

To the editor:


Karl Weissenbach's recent editorial chose to misrepresent my many editorials that presented factual data concerning our public school system's "academic" and "operational" problems and then attack me personally.

Weissenbach's children go to Cascade Elementary School - one school among a number of functionally obsolete inefficient schools I have asked our elected officials to close.

The County Commissioners, the Washington County Board of Education, the Superintendent of Schools and The Herald-Mail's editorial staff all received my very comprehensive spreadsheet analyses of every public school system in Maryland. My views are not based on perception or feelings, but rather on empirical data.

My 16 years of experience working with senior management of many firms to effect "organizational restructuring" allows me to fairly and objectively evaluate optimization opportunities.

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Cascade Elementary School's documented "operational" problems illustrate quite well what Superintendent Betty Morgan must correct to put-in-place an economic, efficient and effective public school system.

Taxpayers currently spend more than $500,000 more annually in staffing costs to educate 158 students at Cascade Elementary School than it costs to educate the same number of students at Boonsboro Elementary School (Cascade $6,988 - Boonsboro $3,747 per pupil staffing costs).

Student test performance at Boonsboro Elementary, when compared to Cascade Elementary in all subject areas, is equal to or superior than Cascade Elementary.

Unfortunately, our elected officials, the commissioners and the board know this and still refuse to meet their statutory and fiduciary responsibilities to assure all schools in the system operate economically, efficiently and effectively.

The commissioners and the board confirmed two years ago that our many micro schools' operations - 15 in all, lack what they termed "economics of scale" that would enable these schools to be operated economically and efficiently. They said the operation of these micro schools costs $2,000 more per pupil in "staffing costs" - not me.

In addition, the "No Child Left Behind Act" has now forced the board to inform us that 496 of the approximately 1,250 classroom teachers lack the knowledge (subject matter mastery) the act requires to continue instructing the subjects they currently teach. Five out of every 12 classroom teachers need to be "re-trained" and "re-certified."

Finally, and most tragically, we now learn that our elementary school reading and math standards and curriculums - instructed over the last 12 years and said to be the best in the nation - are deficient and lack continuity from school to school. Reading and math, two fundamental elements of a basic education, not a world-class education, have been deficient for 12 years. No wonder Washington County's remediation levels for college-bound students in reading and math are among the worst in the state.

The cost to taxpayers to correct these long-hidden systemic "academic" failures is said to be $3.1 million.

Folks, what a 5-110 Performance Audit will likely reveal - and what the commissioners, the board and the Superintendent of Schools don't want you to know - is the actual level of mismanagement of taxpayer dollars.

I project the current cost to taxpayers for this failure to consolidate our school system to be $8 to $10 million annually in excess staffing costs alone. That figure will double in just 10 years at the school system's current 7 percent inflation rate. This does not include the excess "operational and maintenance costs" associated in maintaining 44 schools. To illustrate, a 35-school system operation would reduce staffing level requirements by up to 200 full-time employees.

I fully support public education - but I refuse to pretend the present system is just great. The comic strip character "Pogo" once observed: "We have met the enemy and he is us."

Superintendent Betty Morgan has a tough job - but she also has a responsibility to taxpayers to work on achieving both "operational excellence" and "academic excellence."

If I am correct, the performance audit will reveal that $10 to $12 million in current dollars annually can be redirected to help capitalize a world-class teacher corps capable of instruction world-class standards. It will take many years to right-size operations, but the time to start is now.

Incidentally, no jobs will be lost. Resignations and retirements over the many years required to right-size operations will allow an orderly transition in employment levels. That $10 to $12 million which is being wasted today would capitalize the capital budget borrowing required to build a modern economic and efficient network of schools, increase teacher salaries, purchase textbooks, retrain teachers and make improvements in standards and curriculums. Ten years from now, if nothing is done, taxpayers will be wasting $20 to $24 million in excess staffing costs alone.

Harold "Hal" Phillips
Clear Spring

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