Set school priorities
From: Don Patterson
As a parent, teacher and a taxpayer in the county, I probably view the discussions concerning the portion of the county's budget earmarked for education a little differently than other citizens. From my vantage point, I offer the following assessment:
*. I am very grateful to County Executive [Robert] Neall for including money in his 1993 budget to hire 93 additional teachers to meet the needs of most of the 2,660 additional students expected in September 1992. The county school board had been making plans to add, on the average, two to four more students per class. Even with the extra 93 teacher positions, the school board expects class size to rise slightly. By putting the additional money in the budget to accommodate increasing school enrollment, Mr. Neall goes a long way in trying to minimize the negative impact to students in the classroom of a reduced budget. His return of $1.8 million to the school board specifically for instructional materials needs also to be noted (despite the fact that the school board chose instead to use that money to cover overruns in other budget categories).
*. Let's look at money earmarked for teachers and schools to spend on instructional materials. Last year, because of the budget difficulties faced by the county, schools lost 20 percent of their allocation. When the county executive returned $1.8 million for instructional materials, as described above, teachers and schools received none of it. Now, we hear more bad news for the 1993-1994 school year. Money for instructional materials will be cut another 20 percent! This is the money schools use to buy paper, staplers, markets, art supplies, textbooks, workbooks, science materials, supplies for the ditto and copy machines, and all the other materials for students that parents take for granted. Keep in mind that over 2,600 new faces are also expected in schools next year. What is the justification for this latest reduction?
* What are the priorities of the school board? I asked the members about priorities in a letter I sent to each of them last month when schools were first informed about the possible plan to increase class sizes: "Is what happens in the classroom more important, only as important, or even less important than what appears elsewhere in the school system?"
The Capital reported on May 14, 1992, that "Board president Jo Ann Tollenger made it clear that the board isn't willing to say which programs are more important, because it wants all of them."
I can appreciate the need to push ahead for full funding, but I am deeply concerned with how this board has dealt with fiscal challenges in the past. What was its response to anticipated lower funding for 1993-1994? My understanding is that members cut spending across the board. No priorities were established. The classroom budget was cut by the same percentage as extra-curricular activities, lawn cutting, outdoor education, and administration. What are their actions saying? (I must add that they did make a first step in setting priorities earlier this year by eliminating the subsidy for Driver's Education -- a worthwhile program, but hard to justify in tight economic times when it siphons funds from more fundamental programs.)
Parents pay for their children to participate in sports in the community all the time. Why is there no fee when playing sports at school? Most citizens would see some functions of schools as more crucial than others and expect that the most crucial ones be protected from budget cuts at the expense of secondary and less crucial ones if cuts became necessary. This "water down everything" approach by both the board and some central office (Riva Road) decision makers disturbs me.
* Much has been made about the squabbling between "the county" and the school board over computers (ISIS and a new mainframe). When schools, especially elementary ones, basically have only PTA/PTSO donations and grocery store giveaways with which to acquire computer equipment, the result is very spotty at best. The reality is that schools need to be brought into the computer age. The county executive, the County Council, and the school board have to sit down together and draw up an acceptable plan. Finger-pointing is counterproductive. I have not heard disagreement with the need to get computers in schools in a more meaningful way, which leads me to conclude the chief obstacle is political. The large cost involved in a project like this necessitates that the county and board work together. Let's get on with it, enough time wasted!
The budget is now in the hands of the County Council. Their priorities in education and elsewhere will become evident as its members fine-tune the budget. I ask that they resist the temptation to be "penny wise, pound foolish" and fund the education budget at the level needed to operated programs successfully.
When the budget is finally set and the school board gets its final figures, I hope many of you will join me in carefully watching to see if in fact it sets priorities. All programs may not be possible, but those determined to be the most important must receive the resources necessary to ensure success.
As a parent, I expect the schools to provide the best preparation for my children. As a teacher, I expect the support necessary to do my job effectively. And as a taxpayer, I expect to get my money's worth while realizing that education is a very important service that must be adequately funded.
We need vision and leadership from our elected and appointed officials. I am watching, waiting and expecting more from them all.