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Delegation should focus on school funds, not ward system

February 11, 2007|by TIM ROWLAND

In a perfect legislative world, lawmakers would not be able to have any dessert until they finished their spinach.

That is, they couldn't introduce soft, doughy bills designed primarily to win votes until they had performed the heavy lifting required to genuinely help the people of their districts.

Consider that the Washington County delegation voted 7-1 this week to introduce a ward system for electing members to the Board of Education - thus guaranteeing some degree of regional representation.

This effort may or may not be worthwhile. We don't know. What we do know is that it is very popular in rural parts of the county and a slam-dunk vote-magnet for its proponents.

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Del. John Donoghue, who cast the lone dissenting vote, represents Hagerstown, which obviously has no complaint with the current board's geographical makeup since most members are from the greater Hagerstown area.

But Donoghue went further, pointing the rather obvious truth that the board seems to be functioning pretty well as is - next to last in funding, but in the top five in performance - so he questioned how wards could improve things.

But here's the real problem: It won't make a fig's worth of difference where board members live if there is no money to improve their respective schools. And there isn't, thanks largely to an ineffective delegation.

In fact, the perceived necessity of this bill is brought about not by geography, but by the delegation's uninspiring record of winning (or more accurately, not winning) state funding for schools.

A local board member won't fix problems at Boonsboro. Only money will fix problems at Boonsboro. Very simply, student population is rising, but school-construction money isn't.

And apparently the delegation has little pull with the state school-funding agency responsible for handing out the loot. This state agency is highly political, and responds to lawmakers who make the most noise and have the most clout.

Despite some solid individual efforts by Donoghue and Sen. Don Munson, insiders say the delegation as a whole has done little to shake money out of the state tree.

So while the school system is burning, the delegation fiddles over meaningless proposals such as school districts. Well, meaningless, unless your main objective is not to help kids, but to secure more votes for yourself.

In a sharply worded e-mail to Del. Chris Shank, author of the ward-system legislation, Board Member Wayne Ridenour wrote: "How will regionalized representation benefit children? Will it improve the resources for students? Will it result in more and better facilities? Will it improve student performance? Will operations of the board be more efficient? I have a great deal of difficulty answering yes to any of the above questions."

Many of the schools built in the '50s and '60s still have the original carpet. That's healthy.

Greenbrier Elementary's roof is failing. The board asked the state for $463,000 to fix it, but the request was rejected.

How does Shank believe a board member from the Greenbrier area would be able to provide a roof when Shank can't provide the funds?

Pangborn Elementary has 11 portable classrooms - a virtual school within a school. Yet the state only provided about half of the $9.2 million replacement costs. That means county taxpayers will have to pick up the balance, and taxes may have to be raised to pay for this and other projects - a tax hike that wouldn't be necessary if the delegation had done its job.

On top of that, the delegation foolishly capped the county excise building tax that was supposed to pay for school construction. So not only does it fail to win state funds, it cripples efforts to raise local funds.

Three of the five requests the school board put before the state won't receive a dime, under state-agency recommendations. Pangborn would get half, and Westfields Elementary was recommended for only $2 million of the $10 million it needs.

Even for a rural delegation of minority party members, this is a pathetic record.

As the county has grown, local requests for needed funds are increasing dramatically. The actual state allocation, however, has held steady at best and in some instances even gone down compared to past years.

If the delegation really cares about kids, it will start doing some serious legwork, and make a nuisance of itself before the state. Of course, this would leave far less time for grandstanding over pointless political measures that do nothing for our crumbling schools.

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