Budget fight saps energy from the important issues


August 30, 1998|By Brian Sullam

SCHOOLS OPEN tomorrow in Anne Arundel County. Perhaps it is a propitious time to think seriously about real issues facing public education here.

For the past four months, we have witnessed a protracted battle over education spending. Even though the rest of the budget was fixed by the county council in late May, the actual amount available for education is still uncertain.

Will the department receive $460 million from the county? Or, will a projected surplus from the last fiscal year allow County Executive John G. Gary and the council to increase the amount the system will receive?

Before the number is ultimately decided, Mr. Gary and the county Board of Education probably will go a few more rounds, exchanging verbal blows like two exhausted fighters.

This being an election year perhaps explains some of the intensity of this unnecessarily prolonged and bitter fight. Each side is trying to score political points.

Unfortunately, the county's policy-makers have channeled their energy into this transitory mud-wrestle at the expense of devoting attention to much more pressing long-term issues that will have a far greater impact on school performance.

Everyone's top issue

Indeed, now is a good time to be examining education while it is on the top of everyone's political agenda. Virtually everyone running from office -- from veteran incumbents to first-time challengers -- list education as the most important item facing elected officials. The public agrees. When candidates speak to community groups or appear in forums, audiences seem primarily interested in talking about education.

After years of public indifference, even occasional hostility toward public education, people are genuinely worried about the school system. Many Anne Arundel residents worry that their system could go the way of Prince George's County, which has suffered steadily declining scores on statewide tests.

But when administrators and school board members devote great attention to putting out short-term budget brush fires, they can't focus on bigger issues that could engulf the system.

'At risk' students

Several months ago, for example, the superintendent's Task Force on Student Achievement released a report that examined academically "at risk" students whose grade point averages were below 2.0, or a "C."

In 1996-1997, a stunning 43 percent of the school's 6,132 ninth-graders had GPAs of less than 2.0.

From reams of well-substantiated research, we know that these students are more likely to become dropouts, perhaps welfare recipients.

It is in everyone's interest to see that these children receive the necessary attention so they improve their academic skills, remain in school and ultimately graduate with the necessary abilities and attitudes to make them employable.

Issuing a report was only the first step, however. The task force made recommendations to improve this situation, but the issue promptly dropped off everyone's radar screen. Officials became preoccupied with this non-productive budget fight.

The Baltimore County way

Anne Arundel's policy-makers need look no farther than neighboring Baltimore County to see the positive effects of a less acrimonious budget process.

After longtime deputy superintendent Anthony G. Marchione took over the top job in that school system in 1995, he established a working relationship with County Executive C. A. Dutch Ruppersberger. He submits a "bare bones" budget each winter, and another version with additional programs his staff believes the county could use. The two-step process has eliminated much friction over education spending.

School officials, in turn, can more appropriately focus on more critical issues, such as the high incidence of first- and second-graders who have been reading at below grade level.

Last week, the results of the system's revamped reading program were announced. Eighty-five percent of first- and second-graders are reading at grade level, an improvement of 20 percentage points from a year ago.

Dramatic results

Some of the schools with the worst performance levels improved the most. For example, at Lansdowne Elementary, in working-class southwest Baltimore County, 30 percent of first-graders were reading at grade level in the fall.

By the spring, that ratio had nearly tripled to 83 percent.

Not every reform will produce such dramatic results, but budget squabbles obviously divert professionals' time and energy from embarking on major reforms.

Superintendent Carol S. Parham and Mr. Gary used to have an amicable working relationship. They must figure out a way to re-establish it -- for the sake of the county's school children and the rest of us.

Brian Sullam is The Sun's editorial writer in Anne Arundel County.

Pub Date: 8/30/98

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