How Essex Made The System Work

May 02, 1992

If you wanted a textbook example of how to make government work, you'd turn to the recent news at Essex Elementary School.

For years, principals at the county's third-oldest school asked higher-ups in the Baltimore County system to correct horrid physical conditions there. The restrooms stank of a urine smell that couldn't be scrubbed away. The windows whistled. The heating system coughed. The roof leaked. The paint flaked.

Last winter, school administrators finally asked for $50,000 to solve the problems at the circa-1925 facility. The county's planning board, in turn, drowning in capital budget requests, recommended against the money for Essex. The school's staff and parents showed up at a public hearing in March and appealed directly to the county executive about the intolerable conditions. Executive Roger B. Hayden visited the school the following morning.

Mr. Hayden came. He saw. He allocated -- $2.5 million, in fact, to renovate or replace the building, pending a construction feasibility study.

It was a classic case of people moving a government so dependent on planners and analysts and reviewers that true need can get buried in the yearly budget blizzard. School administrators would be quick to cry "foul" on this point; they've received from the county only a third of the money they've requested for building alterations in the past 10 years, and only two-thirds of the requested bond money for major projects during that time. The schools need more money but the county refuses to provide it. School officials insist it's that simple.

But the recent example of the Essex Elementary allocation begs the question: Why were a handful of parents and a principal, in a few days, able to sell a message of need that the school bureaucracy hasn't had success peddling in years?

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