Opinions sought to better schools

Politicians, citizens push for equity throughout system

October 17, 1999|By Larry Carson | Larry Carson,SUN STAFF

In Howard County, where education is king, and many think school superintendent Michael E. Hickey is the power behind the throne, something new is in the wind.

There's a search for new ideas, more aggressive ways to keep all of Howard's vaunted schools equal in the public's mind -- but this time, Hickey and the elected school board aren't leading.

Now, members of the county council, the Columbia Association and a state delegate are taking the initiative for change in Howard's schools as Hickey prepares for retirement next year after 16 years at the helm.

"We just need to make sure there's equity between schools. All of us need to deal with this," said County Councilman Guy J. Guzzone, a Laurel-Savage Democrat who helped organize an unusual public meeting scheduled for tomorrow to discuss the issue, especially as it affects Co- lumbia's older schools. Parent leaders from county focus schools -- those with lagging performance scores -- are particularly encouraged to attend, Guzzone said.

Political meddling? Well-intentioned foolishness? Or early signs of a major change in how the county governs its proudest possession -- its highly touted school system? Opinions vary, and an undercurrent of tension is evident in school board members' lukewarm endorsements of the new efforts.

"I don't think, frankly, that the meeting Monday is totally a good idea," Hickey said. "I don't have any plans to participate, but I want to listen with interest to what is said."

Former County Councilman Charles C. Feaga witnessed the political muscle of school officials in May 1998, when they marshaled support from hundreds of school advocates after then-County Executive Charles I. Ecker dared not to fund the entire education budget request.

"Michael Hickey still has the strength to demand of the school board what he wants, and put enough fear in the public to go after the politicians," Feaga said recently.

Others think that with Hickey preparing to retire, big changes may be in the works.

"All of these things together are a sea change. You could have a completely different board, superintendent and a council that is more active in dealing with education," said state Del. Shane Pendergrass, a former county council member and school activist. "This really is an opportunity."

`Form some coalitions'

The Rev. Robert A. Turner, president of the African-American Coalition of Howard County, agrees that there's an opportunity -- if school and county officials don't get caught up in turf wars.

"If we form some coalitions, I think then we'll really be able to work toward making quality education something realized by all citizens," he said. "If it's a good idea, it's not as important who thought of it first."

The bottom line, said Del. Elizabeth Bobo, a Columbia Democrat and former county executive, is that "in one of the wealthiest counties in the country we must be able to do a better job in Columbia." Since improvements aren't coming fast enough, she said, the County Council should step in. "I'm glad they're doing it," she said.

Tomorrow's meeting, organized by council members, will be followed by others, said Council Chairman C. Vernon Gray and Guzzone, Democrats who represent parts of east Columbia. The purpose is to discuss new ways of stopping or reversing a trend that has seen some older, mostly Columbia schools lose public favor -- and students -- because of image problems and demographic changes.

All five council members plan to attend, as does County Executive James N. Robey.

New legislation proposed

The trend is clear. Eight older Columbia elementary schools have seen a sharp drop in white enrollments over the past decade, and black enrollments have risen. The result has concentrated nearly half the county's African-American students in these schools, which also have lower standardized test scores, higher poverty rates and more transient and non-English speaking students.

This year, a group of Columbia parents got permission to hire their own bus to bring their children to the newer Lime Kiln Middle School in Fulton, instead of allowing them to attend Wilde Lake Middle in Columbia. The parents said the issue isn't race -- Wilde Lake is more diverse -- but what they see as academic and other problems in the school.

Equally worried about Columbia's schools, the Columbia Council -- an elected citizens group that normally oversees recreational facilities and public area maintenance in the planned town -- is proposing for the first time to donate $100,000 to help county schools. The council also created a task force to look into equity issues.

And a state delegate is proposing legislation under which school board members would be elected by councilmanic district instead of countywide, though board members strongly oppose the idea.

"I think there's tension because most people are very concerned about schools," said Del. Frank S. Turner, the East Columbia Democrat behind the measure. "We all want to see them running as best we can."

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