Fighting for Good Schools HOWARD COUNTY

September 23, 1993

Lynn Benton is a soldier on the front lines, where it is easiest to glean signs of how the war is going. As president of the Howard County Parent-Teacher Association, she is privy to information from educators, families and school system administrators. She may not have all the battle plans or be well-versed in education strategy, but she has a fix on the system's strengths and weaknesses.

These days, she is focused on the school budget. Her concern is that after two years of tight budgets and no end in sight, schools are beginning to show the strain. Her concerns include the growth of student-teacher ratios, and dwindling textbook supplies and computer purchases. She is at least partially right on all counts. But even she acknowledges that the evidence in no way suggests the school system is losing the war.

Howard County indeed has problems with increasing enrollment, which can affect class size. School officials quickly depleted a reserve pool of about 21 teachers before school began a month ago, and last week transferred seven teachers to schools where enrollments had unexpectedly ballooned. Whether the system's average class size has increased across the board won't be known until later this year.

Mrs. Benton has also heard anecdotal information about schools having to turn over textbooks to other schools where shortages exist. To quantify the problem, school officials last year spent $600,000 on new texts, typical of recent years' book orders. This year, though, the amount was less than a fifth of that: $95,000. Some of the difference may be restored by county officials if optimistic tax revenue projections come to pass.

Likewise, funds for new student computers have plummeted. In the 1991-92 school year, the system purchased $66,000 worth of computer equipment. This year's total: $8,000. In fact, it has become a running joke in education offices that the main purchasing agent for school computers are the Giant and Safeway supermarkets, which offer equipment in exchange for register receipts.

None of this means that the Howard system is crumbling. To the head of the PTA and others, however, it does signal that certain areas demand vigilance or the battle to retain the system's high caliber of public schooling will be lost.

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