All-Year Schools: What's It All Mean?

COMMENT

October 31, 1993|By KEVIN THOMAS

I'm trying to keep an open mind about this idea of year-round schools. After all, there may be some good reasons -- in everybody's self-interest -- to consider it.

Howard County Executive Charles I. Ecker, about as straight-up a guy as you can get in politics these days, puts the matter succinctly: Year-round schools will save taxpayers money over the next 20 years. They will protect the county's bond rating, and therefore its ability to borrow funds at reasonable interest rates.

"We want to maintain that rating, if not improve it," Mr. Ecker says.

On the surface, the numbers seem to speak for themselves. If nothing is done, officials say, the county will have to spend about $300 million to build new schools through the year 2004 to accommodate a rapidly growing student population.

The going wisdom is that about $50 million of that will come from the state, meaning that the county will have to borrow the remaining $250 million. And the going wisdom is that repaying such a loan will cost taxpayers about $25 million a year over 20 years.

Add to that the fact that the county will be confronting other major capital projects, including closure of the county landfill, a solid waste disposal initiative and countless road improvements, and the public financing burden will be enormous.

Officials estimate that year-round schools could save the county about $60 million in capital funds over 10 years.

That means the county will still have to pony up $190 million to build new schools -- about $19 million a year over 20 years.

I'm not one to be flippant about the value of a dollar, or even a million of them. But if what we are talking about is a savings of $6 million a year, you have to ask yourself how cheap you want to be.

Year-round schools is not some modest belt-tightening. It is a radical approach that will cause major upheaval in the way the system's schools do business and on the lifestyles of families.

Its savings are unproven, largely because no one has factored in the short- and long-term costs of switching to a year-round calendar.

Moreover, we may not know before the fact whether such a switch will improve the educational attainment of students, as some claim.

In other words, we may be embarking on a grand experiment that we may regret after a lot of damage has been done.

Particularly irksome to me is the misleading impression left by use of the term "year-round." This plan would not keep students even one day longer than the 180 days they currently spend in the classroom.

What the concept calls for is staggering students in and out of school over the period of a year, making it possible to increase the capacity of existing schools because a significant number of students will be on vacation at any given time.

One plan, for example, would stagger four large groups of students in and out of school over the course of a year. Students would go to school for 45 days, then go on vacation for 15 days, then repeat the cycle throughout the year. At any given time, a quarter of all students would not be in the classrooms.

That's my best effort at explaining it, although I must admit I sometimes have trouble following the whole thing.

Which makes me wonder whether the idea will be dropped because county officials won't be able to explain it, or whether they'll rush ahead with the idea before residents comprehend what it all means.

Certainly, some will embrace any plan that might save them from paying more in taxes.

But Howard County is not known for being miserly when it comes to its schools. The system is considered one of the best not only because of the commitment that parents, students and teachers show, but also because the county has not been cheap when it comes to funding.

Good schools not only benefit residents who want the best for their children, but also homeowners -- the elderly and childless -- whose property values continue to rise at a healthy rate in part due to the school system's reputation.

That's something that Howard countians shouldn't gamble on without real assurances that change is in our best interest.

So, while I am trying to keeping an open mind about this one, I'm not going to buy into it until a lot of concerns are addressed -- chief among them that students would benefit from such a monumental change.

Kevin Thomas is The Baltimore Sun's editorial writer in Howard County.

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