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November 19, 2010

School Daze

Norman M. Covert

This is National Education Week, intended to highlight quality education of our children. In that spirit, Granddad read – to a class of first graders – volumes intended to enlighten, encourage and embolden their thirst for knowledge, starting with “If I Ran the Circus,” (© 1956) by Dr. Seuss (nee Theodore Seuss Geisel).


Who isn’t excited by the adventures of Morris McGurk, indomitable Mr. Sneelock and such creatures as the Drum-Tummied Snumm and the Spotted Atrocious (you and I know we mustn’t point out Mr. Sneelock’s tobacco pipe).


I was seated in a rocking chair, surrounded by children full of anticipation, including a proud grandson…. then it’s lunch and recess.


The opportunity transports me to another time, when I was formally exposed to reading through the elementary “Fun with Dick and Jane” books. Curiously, though, the modern classroom itself is little changed from my time under the tutelage of Miss Roxie Stallings or Miss Ann Powell.


In addition to eager pupils, teachers today are burdened by administrative and perplexing socio-political influences that interfere with the daily syllabus. A degree in education doesn’t necessarily prepare a future teacher for contingencies like mainstreaming of special needs children, or the challenge of non-English speaking pupils.


The recent election of new members of the Frederick County Board of Education set a tone for this National Education Week. The campaign rhetoric, buttressed by citizens unafraid to offer their view of education excesses, charged that Frederick County’s school administrators have allowed the system to crash into disrepair.


Some went so far as to fling personal abuse at Superintendant Linda Burgee and members of the school board. The 10-year plan to construct the new administrative building at East and South Streets, some said, took education nourishment away from the children. The noise was certainly loud enough, but the argument fell apart as we learn the finished project is “The Taj Mahal that isn’t.”


Students, parents and teachers know when parts of the system are broken. However, Frederick County has few peers among Maryland’s secondary school system. Something must be right.


We won’t know if the sniping and personal attacks on Dr. Burgee influenced her decision to retire at the end of this school year. Her retirement is a genuine loss, considering her teaching career has been in Frederick County. Conventional wisdom is that we probably will import a new superintendant after an expensive search.


Consider the distinct possibility that Frederick County Public Schools (FCPS) Finance Director Hal Keller, Jr., may himself decide to retire. What a loss that would be – a double whammy for the school administration and the reconstituted Frederick County Board of Education as well!


Dr. Burgee was appointed in June 2004. She inherited overcrowded and outmoded school plants; a burgeoning population; schools planned and a building that would not meet demand when completed; and old staff facilities spread from Church Street to Hayward Road’s warehouse.


A political football, the FCPS operating budget includes local, state and federal dollars, chunks of which are “fenced,” specific program dollars, the latter always in danger of going away unspent.


Voters re-elected Jean A. Smith for a third term on the elected school board along with Dr. April Miller, James C. Reeder, Jr., and Brad Young, not a slate, but each concerned about fiscal responsibility and the future. They will take their seats December 8, 2010.


They join current board President Kathryn B. Groth, Donna J. Crook, and Angie L. Fish. Leaving the board are Darryl A. Boffman, Bonnie Borsa and Dr. Michael Schaden.


The movement against some school board members and Dr. Burgee’s administration alleged mismanagement of the annual $500-plus million budgets, which dwarfs other county program budgets.


No evidence exists to back up the generalized allegations of malfeasance by leadership or staff.


It is a curious thought that the budget and finance seminar conducted by Dr. Burgee and Mr. Keller may have been a sobering experience for new board members. They may realize a new perspective on school funding.


Our more than 40,000 students countywide are privileged to have dedicated educators. Teachers deserve the fruits of their labors. Historically teachers have been, next to parents, the hands rocking the cradle of America. Our children spend more awake time with teachers – nearly six hours a day, five days a week.


My 1950’s era elementary teachers’ salaries were hardly commensurate with the level of effort still required for preparation and actual classroom time.


In addition, growth in non-teaching positions exploded with the introduction of modern education techniques as far back as the 1960s. Coupled with rapidly expanding technology, extra hands are required to coordinate the flow of textbooks and other education resources to classrooms. However, in the bureaucratic environment, once a job is established it is difficult to do away with it.


Personnel staffing remains unchanged in the classroom, which has one teacher and a flock of 25-30 pupils. In elementary schools an aide is often available in primary grades and parents volunteer for special events and programs.


I don’t quarrel with the argument that we need to take a fresh look at which direction we want education to go. The job of education will have to be done at a lower actual cost because resources are quickly drying up.


We’ll also have to do it without the talents and enthusiasm of Dr. Burgee. Her replacement will have his or her hands full.


Dr. Seuss sets the scenario for the next FCPS superintendant quoting young Morris McGurk:


“He’ll manage just fine.

“Don’t ask how he’ll manage.

“That’s his job, not mine.

“Why! He’ll be a Hero!

“Of course he won’t mind

“When he finds that he has

“A big circus behind.”


Yellow Cab
The Morning News Express with Bob Miller
The Covert Letter

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