Columbia panel debates its role in aiding schools

One member suggests avoiding such an `overwhelming' issue

November 12, 1999|By Erika Niedowski | Erika Niedowski,SUN STAFF

The Columbia Council debated last night what role it should play to help solve problems at some of the community's older schools after an ad hoc panel recommended against spending $100,000 set aside in the budget for that purpose.

Rather than spend Columbia Association funds directly on the schools, the panel recommended creating a citizens' advisory committee on "school issues" to study the issue further. A portion of the $100,000 could be used for the committee.

"The problems facing the schools are not resource problems," said Vincent L. Marando, the council representative from Wilde Lake, who co-authored a report detailing the panel's findings.

Marando said the Howard County school system is "flush" with resources, and it is a matter of allocating those resources in the most effective way.

Cecilia Januszkiewicz, Long Reach council representative who had proposed including $500,000 for schools in the association budget, conceded that money is not the only problem. But she called it "naive" to think that additional funds would not help.

"I think the $100,000 is a token, but a very important token for this organization," she said. Spending the money would "reflect our commitment to the community."

Waiting for school officials to address perceived inequities and issues, such as open enrollment, might take too long, Januszkiewicz said.

"We may see a result in a year or two or three, but by that time, how many of our children will have finished their education in this school system?" she asked.

Tom Forno, Harper's Choice council representative, countered that it isn't the council's place to get involved with such an "overwhelming" issue.

"I believe that it's not in the purview of the Columbia Association to deal with Howard County education," he said. "We have a Department of Education, we have a school board and that's where the citizens should direct their attention."

Last week, County Executive James N. Robey and school Superintendent Michael E. Hickey created a 22-member committee on school equity. The panel will tackle concerns about schools with poor images at its first meeting Thursday. Maggie Brown, Columbia Association's vice president for community services, is the group's representative on that panel.

Forno suggested waiting for the equity committee to finish its work before creating another one.

"I think that's fairly tepid," responded Marando. "I think we have to be players to be recognized."

The council voted recently to include the $100,000 in its preliminary budget for fiscal year 2001, which begins May 1. The final budget likely will be approved in February.

The education panel found that:

Many parents of school-age children shop for homes based on school reputation.

Standardized test scores are commonly used to judge school performance.

Older schools lose their best teachers to newer ones.

An increase in students who speak English as a second language creates barriers to learning, which, in turn, lowers test scores.

The quality of academic resources and physical infrastructure varies greatly from school to school.

The panel's report raised questions about the role the Columbia Council should play in education, including whether it should take a position on open enrollment and the election of school board members by district, and whether it should be an advocate for increased school funding.

Other questions concerned the use of Columbia Association resources, such as the appropriateness of it giving money directly to the schools: If it does so, how would the money be allocated? Should the association spend its funds to enhance its educational programs, including the before- and after-school care programs and the teen centers?

A vote on creating the advisory panel has not been scheduled.

Also last night, council members heard testimony from residents trying to preserve an after-school program for the disabled at Cedar Lane school in Harper's Choice, which the Columbia Association has said will soon close.

A full copy of the Columbia Council committee's report on education can be found at www.sunspot.net/news/maryland.

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