Budget woes worry PTA leader But some new programs hearten her

September 20, 1993|By Lan Nguyen | Lan Nguyen,Staff Writer

Lynn Benton has no children in the Howard County public school system, but as president of the Howard County PTA Council she has plenty of concerns.

Three years of budget crunches are taking their toll, she says.

The average class size is creeping up after several years of decline, and textbooks are becoming outdated and worn.

Computer purchases have remained all but stagnant, and older schools are beginning to reflect their age.

"I have real concerns about what's happening in the schools," said Ms. Benton, an Ellicott City resident. "We've worked so strongly for what we have, and I would hate to see it eroded."

That's partly the reason she became this year's president of the PTA umbrella organization, which oversees 54 PTAs and more than 20,000 members.

"It's obvious the budget crunch is going to happen for a while," she said.

The 49-year-old mother, whose two children graduated from Howard public schools, says it's not unusual for someone to head a PTA organization even without any children in the school system.

The key, she said, is a heartfelt desire to play a role in shaping education for county children.

Her interest in the position has been simmering for many years.

Ms. Benton began work in the PTA when her daughter was in kindergarten more than 17 years ago. Her children attended public and private schools, eventually graduating from Centennial High School.

Ms. Benton, who had considered becoming PTA president in previous years, said her home life and other activities prevented her from taking on the challenge.

"I felt I was ready this year," she said. "I was willing to take it on. I knew if I took it, it was going to be a major time commitment."

This year, the PTA council will focus on six areas, including the quality of education, improved human relations and increased parent involvement.

And Ms. Benton has concerns of her own, such as the state-wide push for inclusion -- the idea of mainstreaming special education students.

She worries that teachers don't have the knowledge to work with such a mix of students, and says there needs to be more money put into staff development.

"While they have had some, I'm not sure it met all the needs out there," she said. "I'm hearing teachers feel they would like to have more training."

Ms. Benton sees the burgeoning enrollment as the school system's most pressing concern.

The county has a $300 million plan to build and renovate more than 20 elementary, middle and high schools by the year 2000 to accommodate a projected 40 percent increase in enrollment. Currently, the county has about 33,400 students.

Tomorrow, Superintendent Michael E. Hickey will unveil a proposal for next fiscal year's capital budget.

Parents will have a chance to voice their opinion at the Oct. 7 Board of Education meeting.

Parents have to be open-minded about school construction alternatives, such as year-round schools, she said.

"How can we pay for the schools and provide for other services the county needs as well?" she asked. "It's not as simple as raising taxes." If all of that money were spent on schools, "there's going to be years when there's less money for everyone."

But she said that, even with budget cuts, there are good things happening in the county schools.

Among them: two high schools that are experimenting with four-period days, giving students more chances to take elective courses; the new "MASSI" program, intended to help students achieve by motivating them; and the new extended, half-credit health class, which high school students have to take to graduate.

"We're not stagnant because of the budget crisis," she said. "There are some good things that are happening."

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