Schools Still Getting More Bang for Buck

COMMENT

September 03, 1995|By MIKE BURNS

With almost 1,300 more students than last year, and no new school opening to receive them, the "dear old Golden Rule days" begin this week in Harford County with a crunch.

The county school system's appetite for portable and relocatable classrooms ("trailers" to the rest of us) is unabated, averaging nearly one per school. There are makeshift classrooms and converted closets, peripatetic pedagogues pushing their carts from room to room.

The body count is expected to hit nearly 37,300, a new all-time record (as they love to write in another section of this newspaper). Enrollment has been going up each year for well over a decade.

But the annual jumps in recent years have exceeded 1,000 pupils, which is more than you can cram into a new school even if one were opening every year. Almost the equivalent of two new elementary schools a year, which top out at 600 pupils these days.

There's no relief on the primary school horizon either: This year's student population rise in Harford is almost evenly split between the elementary grades and the upper levels. The 1,000-plus enrollment increases are projected to continue each year until the turn of the century.

Multi-million-dollar renovations and expansions remain in fashion at older schools, ostensibly to save the cost of building a new school. But the "historic" and community values of some schools seem to play a significant factor in the remodeling decisions, as well.

Freshman Gov. Parris N. Glendening has given his blessing to support for several Harford school construction projects that first appeared dead in the bureaucratic waters of Annapolis. So Harford hasn't fared badly in getting the necessary state funding.

The county can also be grateful that problems with delayed construction and missed completion deadlines for new schools have not resurfaced. Part of it was bad luck, part of it was poor contractor selection, and part of it was due to changes made in contracts. For now, at least, the system seems better at anticipating these problems and allowing ample time for the work.

That doesn't mean that school projects have been finished for the beginning of classes, though. Ask students at Bel Air Middle and Youth's Benefit Elementary last year; the deadlines simply fell during the school year.

Some of the tales of overcrowding and inadequate facilities and unfunded instruction in Harford schools result from an increasing specialization in education, one that may dismay older generations and hearten the younger. Thus, there are concerns voiced about the lack of reading rooms and art rooms, and the fact that the school band has to practice on the auditorium stage.

Then there's the plan to buy banks of computers for instruction in all schools within five years. It's an expensive undertaking, one that demands a well designed plan and some numbers-crunching specifics in order to achieve the objective.

The Harford school board froze $650,000 earmarked for computers and software back in June, waiting for the plan to be developed and studied. Last month the board freed up about $400,000 after hearing a report from the new technology and information supervisor, Phyllis Van Winkle, who was hired to develop the Harford plan this year.

Board member Ronald Eaton said he was still unsatisfied with the lack of specifics in the initial report, noting that computers eat up funds that could be used for more basic educational tools in classrooms. Though he strongly supports computer technology for the schools, Mr. Eaton has sounded a warning that could become a battle cry in future skirmishes over school budgets.

Privatization is another battle cry in the budget wars. The board of education is considering turning over maintenance, custodial and utilities management of certain schools to private companies, hearing proposals from two firms.

While the promise of big savings through specialized managerial expertise sounds appealing, the typical result is a cut in pay and/or benefits for employees and a deterioration of staff morale. The savings are illusory and short-lived; a good chunk will go to profits for the management firm and to pay its managers.

There are certainly ways to wring more efficiency and savings from the maintenance system. A better idea might be to get an outside consultant to look at the operations and to recommend changes that could be implemented with in-house staff. Reassignments of jobs and duties might make sense, so might reducing the work force or buying new, more productive equipment and controls. But these are gains that can be achieved without privatizing the operation.

Harford schools can't be accused of overspending on administration, either. At least according to the recent survey that appeared in The Sun comparing the number of $60,000-plus salaries in the metro Baltimore region school systems.

Harford ranked next to the bottom in percentage of school employees (mostly administrators) earning that much, and in the number of such employees per 1,000 pupils. Only Baltimore City ranked lower.

While the survey figures don't show how effectively these upper-salary personnel perform in any county, the results confirm the frugality of the Harford system. Harford continues to spend less per pupil than most Maryland counties (about $5,200), without noticeable disadvantage in comparative scholastic achievement.

Mike Burns is The Baltimore Sun's editorial writer in Harford County.

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