Less money put in schools Down about $400 per pupil in 5 years, adjusted for inflation

'A precipitous drop'

Budget meets state's standard for keeping up with enrollment

August 26, 1996|By Beth Reinhard | Beth Reinhard,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

Today, behind the optimism of every fresh-faced kindergartner who shuffles into a classroom for the first time, every high-strung middle school student sporting favorite back-to-school duds, every cocky high school senior who struts down a hallway, lies a sobering truth:

Howard County is spending less money on educating its children.

Roughly $400 less per Howard County student, in fact, from the 1990-1991 school year to this school year when spending is adjusted for inflation. That's enough money for about 10 textbooks, four desks or one week's salary for a teacher's aide.

Multiply that $400 by the almost 39,000 students enrolled this year, and you'll have a good idea why the public schools still haven't recovered from the financial crisis of the early 1990s.

"We took a precipitous drop from money not being a concern in the late '80s, when revenues were phenomenal and the real estate market seemed to have no limit," said county schools' budget officer David White.

"Things aren't as bad as they were a few years ago because we made cutbacks and managed to keep pace with enrollment," he said. "But until there's a major turnaround in the state or local economy, we'll be treading water."

This year's $240 million budget meets the state's minimum standard for keeping up with increased enrollment, called the "maintenance of effort" law. But in one of the nation's most affluent counties -- to which many residents have come precisely because of the public schools' high reputation -- expectations rise as tall as Ivy League towers.

"We're trying to continue what we've done in the past, which is to give the best education we can offer, but with fewer dollars," said Susan Cook, school board chairwoman. "It becomes a balancing act, and sometimes I feel the scales are tipping in the wrong direction."

Added Sharon Argabright, a fourth-grade teacher at St. John's Lane Elementary in Ellicott City: "This is too good a county to be cutting corners."

Budget cuts haven't knocked Howard from its top perch on the Maryland School Performance Program report card, a ranking based on criteria including test scores, attendance and graduation rates. When Howard teachers hear how some of their colleagues in other systems are faring, their aging books and limited supplies seem like an embarrassment of riches.

"I don't dare complain because when I taught in Baltimore, I had a class of 45 and books for only half of them," said George Lovera, a social studies teacher at Glenwood Middle School in western Howard.

Although coping with tight budgets is not new, even for Howard, there are a few first-day-of-school debuts for the county:

Ilchester Elementary and Long Reach High will open their doors to students for the first time. Wilde Lake High students, who have been attending River Hill High for the past two years, will move into their rebuilt facility. And River Hill will have its own student body and faculty for the first time. The high school openings prompted the biggest high-school redistricting in county history.

Long Reach and River Hill will be host of "technology-magnet" programs that focus on preparing students for careers.

Instructional aides, not teachers, will supervise recess and cafeterias. Carol Eckstein at St. John's Lane Elementary said the new responsibility means she will lose one hour a day with small groups of children who need extra help or advanced instruction.

In a move toward decentralization, principals will report directly to school Superintendent Michael E. Hickey. Previously, principals had to deal first with grade-level directors and associate superintendents.

"Hopefully, it will make our administration more responsive to individual school needs because there won't be a filter," said James Pope, St. John's Lane Elementary principal. "It will also make me feel more secure in decisions because I'm getting them from the top."

Visits to St. John's Lane Elementary, Glenwood Middle and east Columbia's Jeffers Hill Elementary -- as well as conversations with principals and school administrators -- show that classrooms are feeling the county's money pinch in small but significant ways.

While the student population keeps growing -- there will be about 1,700 more children in schools this year -- money for textbooks has been shrinking. The amount spent on books per pupil is about half of what it was six years ago.

Wanda Durham, a Jeffers Hill Elementary teacher who orders books for the entire second grade, said she couldn't afford handwriting and spelling books this year. Of course, the absence of texts doesn't means those subjects won't be taught.

"The teachers try not to let cuts affect the students," Cook said. "If a child has to share a book, so be it. If a child has to copy something down from the blackboard, so be it. The child will still learn."

Although the average class size in the county remains about 25 students, that number is only an average and only good on paper.

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