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Issues that will face this county's next School Board

July 26, 2006

It's taken a long time, but the Washington County school system has finally convinced most parents that education is vital to their children's future.

A sharp superintendent has been hired, test scores have increased and with just a few exceptions, the School Board has stuck to making policy, as opposed to attempting to micro-manage the system.

Things are going so well, at least from where the average person sits, that it took a while for many candidates to get interested in the race.

And, the candidates who have been profiled so far have not mentioned any great wrongs that need to be put right.

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But there will be some big challenges facing the next School Board. Here's my list:

Money. School construction will require funding and if Baltimore Mayor Martin O'Malley is elected governor, I fear that Western Maryland will not get any special consideration.

There will be pressure to increase salaries, too, to keep teachers who have been trained at local expense from being hired away by Frederick County or other easy-to-commute-to locations.

I also wonder whether the school system has seen all of the federal mandates related to the No Child Left Behind act. The feds have already decided what "adequate yearly progress" is, and few governments which have gotten their oar into your pond withdraw it easily.

School construction. Candidate Tom Janus has raised the issue of whether large elementary schools, of 700 or more, are better than smaller schools. Before the next five or 10 are built, citizens need to see some scholarly research on that topic.

Redistricting. Between now and the time that new schools are built, there will inevitably be some existing schools that are jam-packed and others with room available. The last redistricting efforts here did not go well, with some parents telling me that sending their children from more affluent schools to those with more children from lower-income families amounted to "forced busing."

People can be emotional about their child's school. It would be easier if all the schools were perceived as being equal, and attempts to get closer to that goal is driving efforts to reorganize schools such as Bester Elementary.

Between now and then, the fur might fly if parents don't agree with a redistricting committee's decision. I recommend a look at software that would redraw district lines for the system.

Discipline and diversity. As the school population expands, it is inevitable that there will be problems related to mixing students whose families have been here for generations with those who have just arrived and perhaps have just arrived in the United States. The schools must do as police are doing with the Washington County Gang Prevention Task Force and head off problems before they arrive.

Teen pregnancy and health. If the goal is to get more students into college and/or advanced technical training, one part of that must be to cut the teen pregnancy rate.

The argument that parents should be doing this job makes sense, except that in too many cases, whatever message mom and dad are sending isn't getting through. It can't just be the schools doing this job; it must be the whole community.

Children having children leads to many bad things, including increased neglect and child abuse and bigger bills for the taxpayers. Putting wellness centers in all the high schools wouldn't be cheap, but it might take that kind of action to cut the rate.

Community partnerships. Local companies should be encouraged to adopt the schools in their neighborhood and let workers participate as mentors.

Many in business have surely heard of the "study effect," in which the mere act of being observed leads employees to be more productive. That's what takes place between mentors and children - good things happen because an adult is paying attention to them.

Citizen involvement. It has to be encouraged, but not just to fulfill a requirement. If citizens don't feel their input is valued, they will be less likely to volunteer in the future.

Serving on the School Board is a tough job, with as much work as elected positions that pay three times as much. Let's make sure those we elect are up to dealing with the truly serious issues.




Bob Maginnis is Opinion Page editor of The Herald-Mail.

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