Many parents pleased with school changes

November 03, 2003|by LAURA ERNDE

Some parents were nervous when Washington County Superintendent of Schools Elizabeth Morgan surrounded herself with top administrators from outside the county.

They worried that transplants from the Baltimore City school system might not be able to understand the unique problems of this rural area, said Scott Nicewarner, president of the Washington County Council of PTAs.

But now that Morgan and her team have been in place for more than a year, parents and local elected officials are pleased with the changes, which have taken place at a rapid pace.


"I rarely hear those concerns anymore," Nicewarner said. "Their record stands for itself. All anybody has to do is look at the statistics on kids improving grades."

Washington County's 10th-graders rank fourth in Maryland for their geometry scores. SAT scores are rising and students are meeting state standards in every area except special education.

Attendance has improved, with the local school system ranking first in the state for middle school attendance and achieving the lowest dropout rate, 2.19 percent, in the system's recorded history.

The school system's graduation rate, at 84.3 percent, is the highest it's ever been.

Even the local teachers union is praising the new administration, although Washington County Teachers Association President Claude Sasse worries that teachers will get burned out trying to set the bar ever higher.

Change came swiftly after Morgan came here from the Baltimore City school system a little more than two years ago. She began as interim superintendent and signed a permanent contract for the job in February 2002.

Behind the scenes, Morgan reorganized the staff at the central office into what Chief Operating Officer G. William Blum calls a "lean, mean, education machine."

The ratio of students to noninstructional staff in the county is 28.3, which is above average compared to other counties in the state.

It would be even better, but Washington County has more elementary schools for its population, which drives up the need for administrative staff such as principals and vice principals, Blum said.

New faces

While the basic structure at the top of the school system remains the same as before Morgan took over, most of the faces have changed and some of the duties have shifted.

Administrators say they have made an effort to make the administration more efficient and make the best use of people's skills.

Blum, who came from Baltimore, has taken on the duties of the technology officer, allowing that position to remain vacant and the school system to save money.

Blum oversees six people who are responsible for fixing 5,600 personal computers in the system. About 40 percent of the machines are more than six years old.

"They're doorstops. You couldn't give them to a family living in a box because they'd say, 'We have standards,'" Blum said.

As a testament to the department's productivity, Blum said the county government has a similar-sized department to maintain 600 computers.

Like Blum, Deputy Superintendent for Instruction Patricia Abernethy worked in the Baltimore City school system. She also has experience in suburban and rural districts, Morgan said.

"She's just really seen it all and done it all," Morgan said.

Rounding out the top tier of the school system's administration are Chief Legal Counsel Tammy Turner and Executive Assistant for Strategic Planning and Board and Community Relations Shulamit Finkelstein, both of whom have worked in Baltimore.

Morgan said she hasn't hand-picked the upper echelon. Interview teams have taken part in the selections and the jobs were advertised and open to everyone.

Also, contrary to popular opinion, Morgan said there are plenty of administrators who have remained or been promoted from within the school system. They include Director of Facilities Management Dennis McGee, Director of Finance Chris South and Director of Secondary Administration Boyd Michael.

"I believe in hiring the best person for the job. I think that's what the taxpayers deserve," she said.

Pay cuts

Morgan said the community should feel good that highly qualified administrators are willing to take pay cuts to come to Washington County.

Ed Masood was making a six-figure salary at Montgomery County Public Schools. He makes $84,727 as the new supervisor of health, physical education and the arts.

Masood's job previously was done by two supervisors, saving the county nearly $100,000 a year, Morgan said. In addition, Masood's benefits are paid by Montgomery County because he retired from there after 37 years.

Morgan took a $28,000 pay cut to come from Baltimore, where she was making $148,000 a year. She has since received a performance raise that boosted her salary to $128,400, about $23,000 less than the previous superintendent, Herman G. Bartlett Jr.

Overall, Morgan said, the county is paying its administrators $198,150 less than it was paying the previous team.

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