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April 25, 2005

Frederick's Teen Summit

Richard B. Weldon Jr.

This past Friday saw a group of Frederick area high school students gather at Frederick Community College for the Second Annual Teen Summit, organized by the County Workforce Development Board.

My crowd estimating skills are suspect. I tend to hope there are more people in a venue than there might really be. In this case, I'm guessing there might have been 200 plus.

They were an enthusiastic and interested bunch. I had been invited to serve on a panel with Frederick County Commissioner Jan Gardner, Mayor Jennifer Dougherty of the City of Frederick, and Frederick County Public Schools Assistant Superintendent Dan Cunningham.

The questions prepared in advance by the student attendees were outstanding. A few of them are listed below:

What is the Graduation Project, and what is the thought behind the project? Do you feel it should be a requirement? Why are students given so little time to complete it?

What is the hardest part of your job? What made you decide to get involved in politics? What kind of decisions do you make every day? What kind of problem solving skills does your job involve? What have you learned from your experiences as a public official?

Have there been any new laws passed for funding school programs or construction? Who decides the budget for schools and how the money gets divided up? How do you feel about the possibility of resorting to "slots" to fund education?

Who decides when schools get built and renovated in Frederick County? When will Frederick High get renovated or a little fixed-up? Why did they spend 6.4 million on turf at Tuscarora and not spend 3 million for a swimming pool? Why isn't the same technology available in all schools?

What are Frederick politicians doing to support the development of a Teen Center? Is providing teens a safe place to hang out a priority in Frederick? Where will it be located? Who will be funding it? When will the "community center open in the City, and will there be a fee to get in? Is it possible for someone to help us raise money to create more activities for teens?

What is being done to solve the problems associated with growth in Frederick County such as school overcrowding? How are you working to avoid portable classrooms at our schools? What is being done to keep housing costs affordable in the county? Why is Tuscarora too small to hold a fourth class of students?

How was the decision made to demolish Linganore High School? Will the school that is built in its place be Linganore or something else?

Why in the world do you think that high school students are able to function and learn at 7:30 in the morning? Will this time ever change? Why does summer break keep getting shorter?

Why is it that the Class of 2006 has such an increase in graduation requirements? Who determines the requirements?

How many younger people have an impact on the Frederick communities, and what can be done to increase teen involvement?

Why has the county decided to build another power plant?

Why do parking fees in the city continue to go up?

What are Fredericks greatest challenges right now; and if you could make one realistic change to Frederick County today, what would it be?

As you can see, the students seem concerned about growth, school funding, and public education policy matters, especially those that impact on their lives.

The questions were divided up between the panelists, and two student moderators did a great job of keeping things moving along.

A few questions elicited interesting answers, and are worthy of Tentacle-style scrutiny. Dan Cunningham did a great job handling the turf versus pool question at Tuscarora High. He indicated that the last swimming pools were built in a much different era, when money for construction projects was flush.

In today's fiscal climate the backlog on buildings is so great that a swimming pool is out of the realm of possibility. Another student was upset about the Board of Education looking at artificial turf, at least they were until Dan told them how much it costs to maintain natural turf fields that absorb major damage under heavy usage.

Another area of student interest was the new transmission lines scheduled for the Urbana area. A student from Urbana said that the new lines would run through her back yard, and that she and her family were fighting it. I told her about the work my aide Lisa Baugher and I have done to help Urbana residents get organized and communicate more effectively with the Public Service Commission.

Another student wanted to know why the commissioners approved a new power plant, and seemed surprised when I told them that the county commissioners don't get to approve power plants. They are limited to expressing their opinion like everyone else.

One of my favorite questions on the list never got asked. I love the question above about what can government do to increase teen involvement. I was really hoping to ask these energetic young people why in the world they need government to come up with ways to help them get involved.

The most interesting development at the Teen Summit was a revelation from Mayor Dougherty and Commissioner Gardner. In response to the question about what is the one thing she'd do to change Frederick County today, the Mayor said she'd change the form of government. She said that Frederick County government had outgrown the commissioner form; that it was too hard to build consensus between five equals; and that Frederick County was at a disadvantage to other, larger counties.

I assume the Mayor has always supported charter government. I just don't know where she stands on that issue, but her service as a municipal chief executive has probably shown her that it is much easier to govern under that form.

Her experience in building support with the city's Board of Aldermen hasn't been a shining example of cooperation and productivity.

Also, she has always enjoyed the enthusiastic support of former Frederick Mayor Paul Gordon and his wife, Rita, a former school board member. The Gordon's are authors and historians, and Mr. Gordon contributes a regular Gazette column.

My surprise was stoked based on Paul Gordon's almost rabid dislike of anything having to do with the charter form of government for the county. He hasn't just spoken against it, he's made defeating it a personal crusade.

Another major surprise came when Commissioner Gardner followed Ms. Dougherty's remarks with an enthusiastic endorsement of the Mayor's remarks. I have discussed this issue with Jan on other occasions, in a number of different forums.

She had previously ALWAYS opposed charter, and even listed a number of reasons for her opposition, including increased costs of governance and getting government further from the people.

So what changed? A suspicious mind might conjure up thoughts of either Jan or Jennifer envisioning themselves serving as Frederick County executive. That would be an intriguing primary, wouldn't it?

So, now we can add Mayor Dougherty and Commissioner Gardner to a number of people who favor a change in the form of government for Frederick County. The League of Women Voters, several prominent business people, and a number of elected officials including my colleague Del. Galen Clagett (D., Frederick), and yes, even your truly!

I just assumed that Democrats would fear an elected county executive, because for the foreseeable future, our county voter registration suggests that a Republican would win that office. Maybe, just maybe some of our prominent Democrats are more concerned about good governance than they are about partisan politics.

OK, maybe there's another motive.

(Editor's Note: The questions listed above are exactly as they were written by the students.)

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