Even a spoonful of sugar wouldn't help school officials swallow harsh budget realities -- especially in light of a mandate to continue costly school reform programs that they say is like providing a medicaldiagnosis without money for treatment.
With an ailing school budget that is likely to worsen before the end of the school year, schoolboard members are wondering how the state Board of Education can measure schools for success with one hand while stripping away money andprograms with the other.
At the heart of a growing controversy is the Maryland School Performance Program. It calls for issuing "report cards," grading the performance of each school and providing demographic information, as well as for instituting a more stringent curriculum emphasizing thinkingskills, math and science.
Since classes began in September, county officials have asked the school system to cut $5.1 million from itsbudget. Toward that end, students are being asked to foot the bill for such extracurricular activities as science fairs, art exhibits andspeech and math competitions.
"It's hypocritical to talk about great performance from students while services are being cut," Deputy Superintendent C. Berry Carter said during a recent school board meeting, as the county Board of Education debated the idea of cooperating with the state while it cuts back school money.
School board President Jo Ann Tollenger half-jokingly questioned what the penalty wouldbe for not distributing the costly report cards -- which budget officials estimate will cost several thousand dollars. Some of the work was done by volunteers this summer.
Prince George's County officials are reported to have spent nearly $23,000 on the cards, which must be sent home with each student. That school system has 110,282 students, compared with Anne Arundel's 65,000.
"I'm not going to have this report bankrupt us from the other things we have to do," Tollengersaid. "If this government wants to come down and lead schools, come on."
Tom Rhoades, the school system's director of management services, questioned whether it would be proper to distribute the report cards Nov. 12, as scheduled, without money to pay for other aspects ofthe state initiative.
"MSPP is one of 16 state reforms," Rhoades said. "The fundamental question one might ask is, 'Why bring up the program to measure performance if we aren't going to do the other 15 things.' "
The state reform package includes mandatory kindergartenand a longer school year -- two reforms that would carry a hefty price tag.
State Board of Education spokesman Ron Peiffer said the state has no plans to curtail the school reform program.
"The plan is still on to release the report cards on Nov. 12," Peiffer said, noting that the state board itself has been hit with a $23.4 million cut. "The cuts will slow us down quite a bit, but I have not heard anything to imply that the Schools for Success program is off."
School board member Thomas Twombly said the program still has his support.
"I believe in accountability," he said. "I think MSPP is essential to us providing better-quality education. I still support the concept, but I always said it should come with dollars. It's important to methat we find out where the weak schools in the system are."
Meanwhile, teachers are frustrated about the additional work required to help students pass the Maryland School Performance tests, secretaries participating in work-to-rule job actions say the additional work maynot get done and parents maintain that the state's new attendance policy -- which counts religious holidays as absences -- is unfair.
Teachers' union president Thomas Paolino is calling for a truce, asking all parties to re-examine the plan in light of fiscal realities.
"(The governor) is not a people person," Paolino said. "He does notcare about people. He's hurting those who can least afford to be hurt. He's hell-bent on implementing the Schools for Success program with no money."
Students and school board members are planning to gettheir opinions on record during a public hearing scheduled for Oct. 29 at the state Board of Education in Baltimore.
Board members, however, voted on a proposal Wednesday noting their preferred changes, which would include:
* Allowing for more electives in high school.Under the state's plan, students would be left with only two over four years.
* Incorporating geography with other history courses, freeing students for a half-credit in psychology, sociology or home economics to fulfill the social studies requirement.
* Dropping the state's proposal that the one physical education credit could be earned through participation in interscholastic sports. Instead, the boardrecommended that a half-credit be required in Fitness for Life/CPR and half-credit in a physical education class.
* Dropping the 75 hours of required community service, which school officials estimate would cost between $600,000 and $1 million to implement. Instead, they propose a certificate of recognition at graduation for students choosing to volunteer as an elective course.
State Board of Education members are scheduled to vote on the changes to graduation requirements Nov. 20.
Written testimony will be accepted by the state board until Oct. 22.
The Oct. 29 public hearing will be the only opportunity for oral testimony.