A top commodity for county investors


May 09, 1999|By Norris West

IF YOU'RE playing the market, as more and more people are these days, you want the next Microsoft or the next Amazon.com. You want to invest in a rising star, or one that has proven it can navigate troubled times.

The stockholders of Anne Arundel County -- the taxpayers -- certainly want this, and they're fortunate to have a commodity that has outperformed most in recent years: Superintendent Carol S. Parham.

As head of the county public schools, Dr. Parham has brought spark and stability to a once-embattled system. She has been a dynamic advocate for education, winning over skeptics with drive and superior communications skills. Her stock has risen since her appointment five years ago. Many observers are convinced that she can go anywhere she wants in public education. Anne Arundel should cross its fingers and hope she stays.

Because of Dr. Parham's leadership and a desire of county residents to build a school system that rivals those of Howard and Montgomery counties, County Executive Janet S. Owens' just-released budget appears a good investment.

Slipping percentages

The spending plan Ms. Owens proposes for the fiscal year that begins beginning July 1 would provide $335.7 million for the Anne Arundel Board of Education, 46 percent of the county's total $730 million. Ms. Owens struck a chord with voters last fall when she pointed out that the schools' share of the budget had slipped from 47 percent to 43 percent in four years. By comparison, 55 percent of Howard County's budget goes to public schools.

Former County Executive John G. Gary, who enjoyed considerable popularity during most of his term, lost support when he became tangled in a conspicuous confrontation with school officials over funding. He argued that he had increased spending for education while in office. In sheer dollars, this was true. But voters who rejected him at the ballot box replied, in effect, that the increases were insufficient.

To be sure Anne Arundel County schools are far from bad. Their Maryland School Performance Assessment Program scores have risen in recent years. About 48 percent of third- , fifth- and eighth-grade students in county schools performed satisfactorily last year on MSPAP tests, currently being held again statewide.

Middling MSPAP scores

But the county can do better. Anne Arundel's scores ranked ninth in Maryland, trailing all other Baltimore-area suburban counties and others: Howard, Montgomery, Carroll, Calvert, Queen Anne, Baltimore, Harford and St. Mary's.

Dr. Parham said that Anne Arundel schools can match or exceed its counterparts with greater public support, which may or may not be true.

Also important is a child's home life. Children are more likely to perform well in school when their parents emphasize academic achievement.

What message does a child get when his father whoops it up over a dunk in a varsity basketball game or a winning goal in soccer but appears indifferent to success in the classroom? Another factor is making sure that children arrive at school prepared to learn, without causing disruptions or having to tolerate them.

But the superintendent is right that only money can provide schools with the resources they need to do the job well.

The new county executive's investment in the school system is a step forward. Her budget would reduce the average class size for first-graders from 25 to 20, a head start that could make a difference for many youngsters. She also has agreed to spend about $40 million over four years to renovate and repair aging school buildings. This is a good down payment on an estimated $440 million bill to fix infrastructure problems.

Dr. Parham's challenge is to work with the school board, administrators, teachers, parents and students to convert this renewed support into greater academic achievement. If she does, her stock -- and test scores -- will keep rising.

Norris P. West is The Sun's editorial writer in Anne Arundel County. He can be reached by e-mail at norris.west@baltsun.com.

Pub Date: 5/09/99

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