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March 3, 2004

What's Really Wrong With Our Schools!

John W. Ashbury

Have you ever wondered who is responsible for the problems facing public education across the country? There are a lot of possibilities, but it all really boils down to a single group of people.

Take what is happening in Baltimore City with its school financial crisis and how the politicians at both the state and local level are attempting to solve it.

Mayor Martin O'Malley, on whose watch the Baltimore schools have dropped to a $75 million deficit by overspending, attempts to shift the blame from his shoulders. He accepts no responsibility at all.

In addition to that humongous deficit, there is a major cash flow situation that requires the infusion of $58 million in loans from the state, the city and a private foundation.

Sadly, Mayor O'Malley is attempting to blame Gov. Robert Ehrlich for the problem. The governor has initiated a single state budget during his short time in office. So he certainly cannot be totally responsible for the problem. Besides, the state chipped in nearly 70 percent of the current Baltimore City schools budget. City taxpayers fork over a paltry 22 percent directly to their schools' budget.

The situation couldn't get much worse. Or maybe it could when you consider who is really responsible for the situation.

We in Frederick County are pretty lucky - to a point. We have citizens here who look at the budget for both the county and the Board of Education and squawk loud and long when red flags go up. Unfortunately, all too frequently their complaints are ignored by those in charge. It has only be within the past couple of years that the county commissioners have "uncovered" their own red flags and put a halt to some of the questionable practices of the Frederick County Public Schools staff - from the superintendent on down.

An example if you please. It was just a short year or so ago that the FCPS staff let a contract for some new equipment before the county commissioners were asked to approve a budget transfer to cover the purchases. Some of the money being transferred to accommodate this purchase came from funds allocated and approved to purchase textbooks for the classroom. The equipment would not have benefited the children's education directly. Some trucks were being purchased.

We pundits like to hurl barbs at the Frederick County Teachers Association (FCTA) because its leadership is always complaining that the compensation for its members is "way-to-low" to be acceptable. But this is at the same time when the average salary of a full-time teacher here is above $48,000. How many of the work-a-day people who live here can say their average salary is above $48,000 per year?

The teachers' union does a fairly good job of convincing board of education members that the pay is inadequate, but, at the same time, does a lousy job of convincing the general public of the same thing. That failing creates an askance view of teachers by the very citizens who are asked to fund those salaries. Teachers are seen as whiners and complainers, when in actual fact only a small numbers of them fall into that category.

The county commissioners have a thankless job on this front. No matter how much they give to the school system, there will be those who will complain from both sides of the ledger - "It's too much!" "It's not enough!" But, by and large, the county gives half of its entire budget to the schools. This doesn't include the debt-service on bonds sold to build and renovate schools, nor does it include the in-kind services the county provides to FCPS.

What really ticks off many citizens is the realization that all of the money the county collects from property taxes goes to FCPS, PLUS more than $20 million collected from other sources. And when this is done, they hear teachers stand up at public hearings demanding more, saying they are willing to pay higher taxes if they get more in their pockets. The delivery driver and the store clerk wants to throttle someone when they hear that.

There are members of this school board who have their own agendas, everything but what really matters - the education of the children. There are so many special interests involved in our education system here that keeping a head clear of all the garbage is a full time job. The sad part is that all too many members of this seven-member panel are not up to the task at hand.

Why aren't grades improving by leaps and bounds the way the budget is increasing? One explanation cites the numerous mandates hurled at FCPS by both the state and federal government. This new "No Child Left Behind" Law sounds great on paper, but the devil is in the details and in the fact that the federal government didn't send our money back to us to fund these new requirements. And, besides, do you really want your child to be the same as the child in the next seat. That's what NCLB will generate if allowed to continue.

But we can look at the money anyway, despite these mandates. Just 20 years ago the school system budget topped out at $65 million. Now the school board is asking the county to fund its share of a $342 million budget for next year. That's more than a 500 percent increase in those years. It works out to about 25 percent hike every year for 20 years.

And don't forget that figure doesn't include the money provided by the county and the state for new schools and renovations. We have opened a new school each and every year for the past 20 years in Frederick County with only a year-or-two exception.

And now for the killer in this equation. Our school population has not even doubled in the last 20 years. Sure there is inflation. But no where near a 500 percent increase.

The real blame for the problems in our schools doesn't lie at the feet of the school board; nor the county commissioners; nor school administrators; nor the teachers' union; nor the support staff; nor the state in providing inadequate funding; nor the federal government for adding more and more mandates without providing the money to implement them. The problem, dear readers, can be laid at the feet of PARENTS. Parents who care too much and parents who don't care enough - if at all.

We sit back and let others spout their pet peeves and do nothing. And the board of education and the school administrators think that is what we ALL want. So there go your hard-earned dollars to a worthless cause because someone stood up and complained or demanded.

The current crisis in local education, as it has been for years now, is the overcrowding of some facilities. But because we have built so many permanent seats over the past 20 years, we now have a system-wide capacity that exceeds our need by seven percent. Translated, that means we are at 93 percent capacity. If all our students were distributed evenly throughout all our schools, every school would have seven percent of its seats EMPTY.

We have some school well over 100 percent capacity and other dramatically below capacity. A prime example is Oakdale Elementary which is at 104 percent capacity, while the elementary school closest to it - Spring Ridge - is at 84 percent.

However, if the school board suggested that students be redistricted to even out these two schools' population, the howl would be heard in Thurmont.

It is time to tell the parents to take a hike and do what is best for ALL the students in ALL the schools in the county. Certainly there will be unique situations which will have to be addressed. But overall parity could be had.

Once again, all this boils down to the ME generation. The public good isn't served very well when all we want to know is how will this benefit me and mine. There seems to be little concern by anyone connected to education with how good an education is being provided to the students. It's always what benefit will I get from it all.

So, until and unless the powers-that-be on both sides of Church Street understand that their job is to provide the best education possible in the most cost effective manner, we will never solve the most pressing problem in our schools. Forget getting re-elected. If you do the right thing, you will be re-elected time and again.

And tell the few parents who constantly squawk: "Don't let the door hit you in the backside on your way out." Certainly listen to their concerns and address them if need be. But don't hamper the education ALL the children receive by playing favorites with the parents who make the most noise.

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