Usual remedies won't fix what ails school board

Comment

October 31, 1999|By Mike Burns

CAN THE Carroll County school board be fixed? Is it broken? These are questions asked as the divided board is under the microscope of a county grand jury.

The usual remedies are hauled out:

Appoint the school board rather than elect the five members.

Transfer more financial oversight to county government.

Consolidate construction programs with the county.

Require more open board meetings and discussions.

These measures have been discussed by the public before, without much action.

Commissioners' new tack

What we have now, however, is a trio of county commissioners that is beginning to assert itself in the expensive, tax-funded school construction program. It is questioning the open-purse demands of school administrators and the engineering decisions of school board staff.

The commissioners are holding back $1 million of the school budget, pending a comprehensive audit of the entire school system. That leverage forced the school board's assent to the audit.

Commissioners are also challenging the location planned for a new Westminster-area high school after a series of errors at other project sites that included inadequate soil testing, faulty blueprints, costly heavy rock removal, and an illegally installed waste-treatment plant.

Their concerns may be answered sufficiently by the school administration. In the meantime, however, the board is spending $800,000 for design and engineering work on the site it chose for a high school without the commissioners' approval. The county commissioners then slapped a $30 million cap on construction costs for the new school, expected to hold 1,600 students after opening in four years or so. Because of poor planning, the school's estimated price soared to $38 million.

The problem won't be solved by a grand jury report or by promises of the school board to do better next time. It won't be solved by changing to an appointed board of education. Elected or appointed, school boards can be good or bad, depending on the members and circumstances.

Two bodies, two expectations

At the heart is Carroll County's differing expectations of its two elected bodies.

The three county commissioners are expected to practice the conservative, tight-fisted approach, to question every penny. They make decisions, as the recent high school price cap illustrates, on major projects of the school board.

On the other hand, the five school board members are elected not for their philosophical parsimony, but for their commitment to "quality" education.

They are expected to ask for more budget money to improve their product. When candidates run for the board on a platform of fiscal conservatism, cost-cutting and salary-slashing, voters generally view them as hostile to the school system and reject them.

While the Carroll school board may not be liberal in its approach to curriculum, it is expected to be liberal in its advocacy of education spending. The board knows that the county and state will pay for only so much. The commissioners typically approve the annual school budget, after a few cuts to demonstrate their authority. They spend more on education every year.

The major problem arose several years ago when there was no room for a mushrooming pupil enrollment. New schools had to be built, and in a relative hurry. More than 100 portable classroom trailers were dispatched to expand capacities of existing schools.

The county commissioners committed to an extensive program to build more schools, raising the piggyback income tax and the property tax rate and authorizing nearly $90 million bond debt to cover the initial projects. Eight schools were to be constructed within six years or so.

Challenge for the schools

After years of puttering around on an occasional new school, suffering completion delays as an inevitable fact of life, the school administration was faced with a significant new challenge from the commissioners.

Instead of gearing up with professional help, the school system stuck with its old managers and methods. The result was a series of overbudget new schools, lawsuits and a tarnished reputation.

Now, there's no reason to suspect that the commissioners are infallible. They've made some bad decisions.

But the county's professional construction and engineering staff could lend strong direction and oversight to the task of building public schools. That expertise should be tapped by a school board that has shown its own incapacity for strict, careful construction management.

The board of education wouldn't relinquish control of education. The commissioners wouldn't have to micromanage each project, or approve each step-payment. And the school board could continue, without the blemish of mismanaged construction, to freely argue for increased funding for education.

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

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