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A chat with Tom Janus

October 05, 2004|by BOB MAGINNIS

Like him or not, you've got to give Washington County School Board write-in candidate Tom Janus one thing: Unlike most others in this race, he's talking about the issues.

He's also ruffling feathers.In a June 29 letter revealed recently William Blum, the School Board's Chief Operating Officer, warned Janus that some central office employees had found his requests for information intimidating. If that continued, Blum said, the board would have to issue Janus a "no trespass" letter.

In a written statement, Janus said that the School Board was using "an intimidating, scare-the-questioner-away approach."

Whether you believe Janus is what Blum's letter suggests, or just a gadfly the School Board would rather not deal with, it's been a long slide from the relationship the two had back in 2002.

That's when Janus was chosen as a member of the board's Management Review Team, in which 35 local business leaders spent three weeks studying the school system's operations.

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Janus wrote what amounted to a dissent to that study and was irked when it wasn't included in the final report.

The heart of Janus' dissent was that while the system may have goals and objectives, in most cases no staff member is responsible for carrying them out - or catches heck if they're not.

Janus, who has a Harvard MBA, is a great believer in the process known as Total Quality Management, or TQM, which involves studying processes and how to improve them.

Asked about recent reports of improvements in local students' performance in state test scores, Janus said that data is only relevant when measured against what other counties are doing.

It's like the worker who gets a raise, Janus said. He or she may feel good about it, but if it doesn't exceed the rate of inflation - or what other workers are getting for the same performance - it's no big deal.

"It's not really progress because it doesn't equal what the other counties in the state are doing," he said, adding that data available from the Maryland Department of Education's Web site backs him up.

"Harford County. Go check them out. They're beating the pants off of everybody," he said.

"Why? Because they have a high percentage of IA's (instructional assistants) to teachers," he said.

When there's a problem in the classroom - be it a child who needs additional help with the lesson or one who becomes disruptive, there's someone there to handle it right away, he said.

Instead, Janus said, the local system has put millions into the Student Achievement Specialist program, or SAS. In the program, veteran educators are used as trainers for other teachers and to help students in need.

It would be better, he said, for teachers to use an enhanced version of the ABACUS system, which collects data on student progress. It can even be used to write letters to students' parents about what problems they're experiencing in the classroom.

A child is like a barrel of crude oil, Janus said. Just as different varieties of crude require different processes to turn them into useful products, different students need different approaches to make them successful.

Rather than use millions of dollars on an SAS system that has no proven results, Janus said he'd rather see the system purchase computers and software for students who don't have them in their homes.

"I'm a great believer in technology. You can move through the material at your own pace and you can work on the problem until you get it right," he said.

To study the processes in use, Janus said, one needs information. When he asks for it and is told only to go to the board's Web site without a clue as to exactly where, "then the red flag goes up."

But Janus said he isn't pursuing the debate just for the sake of argument.

"I'm upset and I feel for the estimated 6,000 students in the system who are not meeting grade-level objectives," he said.

Asked how he hoped to persuade the rest of the board to follow his lead, given their apparent reluctance to do so thus far, Janus said he would work with the administration.

"I would do that by identifying those parts of the educational process that need to be measured," he said.

In a short column such as this, it's difficult to review all the fine points of an interview that lasted 90 minutes and covered numerous topics. But based on our time Monday and on previous observation, I am convinced Janus would rather be right than well-liked.

That's a handicap when it comes to persuading others, a plus when you consider he's unlikely to say anything he feels is untrue to win voters' favor.

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