No cause for smugness about county's schools

Comment

November 24, 1996|By MIKE BURNS

IN THE SCHOOL board election campaign in Carroll County this fall, the two challengers argued that the issue was excessive executive pay and inadequate teacher pay.

The two incumbents mightily defended the salary structure, pointed to the admirable achievements of the education system, and handily won re-election.

But that debate is not over, not by a long shot. Ann Ballard and Joseph Mish should not feel too comfortable in their recovered board seats. Because a lot of people who voted for them still harbor doubts about the education system payroll, and what it may mean for the future of Carroll schools.

County Commissioner Ben Brown is one of them. Before the election, he publicly endorsed the incumbents, while lecturing them about cutting high salaries in managerial ranks. Mr. Brown may be excused for a certain personal peevishness. As one of three county commissioners, his $32,500 annual paycheck is one-fourth what school Superintendent Brian Lockard makes. (Mr. Brown also makes less than many county employees, who '' are full-time career employees, but the multiples aren't nearly so high.)

What he said was that the Carroll County school system had more than 120 administrators earning at least $60,000 -- more than the most experienced and talented teachers in the system.

"It is truly irritating to hear talk of curriculum cuts [see last spring's budget showdown] when the top 10 administrators make more than $800,000 combined," Mr. Brown said.

Then, just in time for teacher contract negotiations, an updated report from the state Department of Education came out that ranked Carroll's starting teacher salaries 19th (of 24 systems).

Superintendent Lockard's salary was third highest in Maryland school districts; maximum salaries for other managerial positions from assistant principal on up) were ranked sixth or higher.

The maximum teacher salary in Carroll was eighth-highest, at $53,000 for 1996-97.

Greener pastures

School recruitment officials say the relatively low starting salary (even compared to Pennsylvania schools) is hampering efforts to sign first-year teachers. One of every five new teachers made an offer by Carroll opts for a higher-paying teaching job elsewhere.

So the Carroll administration hopes to spend more money in raising the salary scale of new teachers to be more competitive in hiring. But the contract is negotiated for teachers already on board, with experience and farther up the salary scale. Their interest is not in starting salaries. They didn't get a raise last year, either (nor did the executive levels).

While it might have an egalitarian political appeal, trimming the top salaries of school managers would not have much effect on the total system salary structure.

Every school system wants to be competitive in signing the best new teachers (and the ones trained in desirable specialties such as science, math, foreign languages, special education).

Once they are here and established, the thinking is that they will enjoy their work and environment and be less inclined to seek work elsewhere. More experienced senior teachers are even less likely to move on, so there is less pressure to raise their salaries significantly even though they may be the most valuable assets.

Resources in classrooms

Labor talks aside, the new state report provides reassurance that Carroll is putting much of its resources into classrooms and not into bureaucracy.

The figures show that 61 percent of the school system employees work directly with students, which ranks third in the state, according to Stephen Guthrie, the schools' personnel specialist.

As board members Mish and Ballard emphasized in the campaign, the number of top-level administrators is the same as years ago. The growth has been in mid-management jobs.

Carroll's cost per pupil remains in the lowest third among the 24 Maryland jurisdictions. Meanwhile, Carroll students continue to rank among the top three in annual state testing.

So there's scant evidence of a bloated, inefficient and costly bureaucracy that is holding back academic achievement by Carroll's schoolchildren. You get what you pay for, as Mr. Mish said.

And yet there is no reason for complacency, for not seeking greater efficiencies from the management sector.

The focus on the superintendent's salary is a result of five years of battles over whether to make the contract public, and over the sizable pay increase given Mr. Lockard when he succeeded Edward Shilling three years ago.

The school board knows that the commissioners want to take a whack out of that target when the next year's budget request comes up. The Planning and Zoning Commission has already sent a warning shot with its wholesale disapproval of school system capital budget requests.

Despite its comfort in the statistics, the school board will need to be sensitive to the unceasing political demands for greater efficiencies that don't come at the expense of classroom programs.

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

Pub Date: 11/24/96

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