Curing incurable optimism

March 18, 1992

A colleague of Robert Y. Dubel yesterday referred to the Baltimore County school superintendent as "the most incurable optimist" he knew. He meant it as a compliment. But in these times of budgetary woes, superintendents diagnosed as incurable optimists ought to visit the school nurse.

Dr. Dubel got the county school system in a mess by not mapping out an early plan to deal with the $8 million in budget cuts his department faces. The superintendent has now proposed furloughing teachers, but they still have to work on their furlough days. It's depressing for anyone to be told to miss a day's work without pay; it's unconscionable to be told to work those days without pay.

The Teachers Association of Baltimore County warned school officials last week that they would take off a day in protest. Indeed, about 500 teachers missed school yesterday, double the number normally absent. The "sick-out" contradicted the union's continual plea to "support the children," but many teachers felt they had passed the breaking point.

County teachers are being furloughed on the afternoons of June 15, 16 and 17, and 2 1/2 other days, even though they'll have to grade final exams those June afternoons. The teachers union would rather have the schools closed for three full days at some point, since the calendar includes three snow days that were never taken. Dr. Dubel and the school board rejected that option as "too disruptive," meaning they didn't want to field flak from working parents about their children being off.

In Anne Arundel County, by comparison, teachers are no happier that they face four furlough days this spring. But the county planned ahead. It held classes on two previously scheduled teacher in-service days to stuff some cushion into the schedule. If, or more likely when, the General Assembly fails to give relief to the counties, the school system will add two days off to Easter vacation and cancel the two days when teachers normally clean up their files after school ends. The strategy was worked out with the teachers union. The school system also moved quickly to address furloughs for year-round employees: Those workers took off six unpaid days at Christmas when they're normally on.

Most jurisdictions in the metropolitan area have had to furlough or lay off employees to make up for lost revenue. Only Baltimore County's school leaders acted as if they could fend off the storm clouds by not bringing along an umbrella.

Dr. Dubel may have thought he was looking out for the teachers. Instead, he left them feeling abandoned and left his principals to wear pretend smiles on a wasted, divisive day. Optimism may be a fine attribute for a fan preparing for the new baseball season, but it's no way to run a school system, or government, these days.

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