Council eyes more power over schools

Closer scrutiny sought as Hickey seeks funds to address inequities

Gray wants `accountability'

Audit of programs, distribution of budget are options for control

January 13, 2000|By Larry Carson | Larry Carson,SUN STAFF


In an article Thursday in the Howard County edition of The Sun about the Howard County school system's operating budget, Superintendent Michael E. Hickey incorrectly stated that he was requesting money for more than five additional guidance counselors at certain elementary schools. Hickey is requesting money for one additional guidance counselor.

With the debate over school equity bubbling in the background, the Howard County Council is exploring two new ways of gaining more control over the school board's budget.

Meanwhile, schools Superintendent Michael E. Hickey has included $2.1 million to address some equity complaints in the $325.1 million budget he proposed for next year.

Council members agreed yesterday that they want more information about using performance audits to see how school programs are working, and about setting spending priorities in the education budget instead of letting the school board do it.

"We need to have greater accountability. We need to take a hard, hard look at school spending," Councilman C. Vernon Gray, an east Columbia Democrat, said at yesterday's monthly administrative meeting.

Other members were less emphatic but want more information, they said. "I'd like to know. It doesn't hurt to know more," said western county Republican Allan H. Kittleman.

School board members took a wait-and-see attitude but warned that too much control could begin to intrude on the board's authority.

"That's their right, and they're just talking about it. We'll continue to give them whatever information they need," said board Chairman Sandra H. French. Board member Steven C. Bounds, a candidate for re-election this year, took a more direct tack. "Anyone who desires that degree of control should be on the school board," he said.

The closer council scrutiny comes against a backdrop of change and renewed concern about education in Howard County, where some older schools -- mainly in Columbia -- have lower average standardized test scores and more children from poor and minority families. Some people fear that these patterns developed partly because of school board redistricting and open-enrollment decisions, and because of spending and staffing priorities.

Concern changed to alarm for some in September, with the revelation that a group of mostly white Columbia parents had hired a bus to transport their children to school after the board allowed them to transfer from Wilde Lake Middle School -- the county's most diverse -- to the new Lime Kiln Middle in Fulton.

The equity money Hickey put in his budget request would pay for more school maintenance at older buildings, five to six new guidance counselors at lagging elementary schools and two new staff recruiters to find and keep good teachers and staff.

Parents have complained that good principals often take an older school's best staff members with them when they move, often to a new school in the wealthier, fast-growing areas of the county. The County Council called public meetings in October and November on the issue, formed a citizens' committee and issued a report.

The school board hasn't responded. It is awaiting the results of another, larger committee appointed in October by County Executive James N. Robey and Hickey. That group is to report its findings by March.

Currently, the council annually approves a total amount for the school budget, but allows the school board to distribute the money among the 13 budget categories. The council is considering setting the amounts in each category as a way of exerting more control over how the money is spent.

In addition, council members want to see if they can independently evaluate the worth of some school programs by doing independent performance audits, like those done for the past five years in Baltimore County. The difference is that Baltimore County audits only administrative and financial school operations, not academic ones.

"This is a question of where your expertise is. I can look at management," said Brian J. Rowe, Baltimore County's auditor. To evaluate academic programs, he said, he would have to hire a consultant, which would be very expensive.

But Gray said he wants to look at classroom programs, such as the class reduction in first and second grades that is under way. If it follows through, the council's moves could be controversial, pitting the elected school board against the elected County Council.

For now, French, the school board chairman, chose the diplomatic approach. "I think it's wise for them to really look at it first before making decisions. It's important to find out what has already been discussed by other groups and what the outcomes are," she said.

Bounds added that the board already does internal audits of academic programs and is always willing to share information with the County Council.

But Gray said he is still angry that last year, after the council approved the school budget, the board shifted funds to hire 20 extra teachers for elementary schools-- but didn't tell council members about it until late last year.

"I was really disturbed by that when I found out that had been done," he said.

The issue is far from decided. The council merely agreed to learn more about its options, said Chairwoman Mary C. Lorsung, a west Columbia Democrat. But failing to make changes just because of tradition won't do either, she said.

"We can't just anymore sit here and say we haven't done that in Howard County," she said, noting that other counties already do some school performance audits.

Still, Councilman Guy J. Guzzone, a North Laurel-Savage Democrat, said he isn't committed to pursuing the new ideas. "We're early in the process," he said.

Sun staff writer Tanika White contributed to this article.

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