O'Rourke outlines budget proposal

Superintendent seeks $40 million spending increase

Ellicott City

January 12, 2001|By Tanika White | Tanika White,SUN STAFF

Howard County Schools Superintendent John R. O'Rourke unveiled last night his first spending plan, showing once again his intent to be more hands-on than his predecessor and asking for $40 million more than last year.

In addition to money for new teachers, support positions and supplies, the proposed operating budget for fiscal 2002, which begins July 1, includes about $363,000 to institute a new approach to managing the schools with the lowest achievement.

The $374.8 million proposal - a 12 percent increase over last year's $334 million budget.

Other highlights of the spending plan include:

Expansion of summer school math and reading programs.

A heavier emphasis on accountability.

Increased funding for equity-related issues and programs to close achievement gaps.

More response to community concerns, such as money for classroom graphing calculators.

The biggest change the budget represents is O'Rourke's approach to managing low-achieving schools.

Michael E. Hickey, O'Rourke's predecessor, had designated the 13 lowest-performing elementary and middle schools "focus" schools to provide them with more resources and attention.

The focus schools - like all county schools - operated under a "school-based management" program, where principals were given autonomy.

No `focus schools'

But O'Rourke announced that he will do away with the "focus school" term and insist that all poor-performing schools operate under an "integrated management system," similar to the one that has been at the root of many awards at Bushy Park Elementary School.

"We're going to strike that term from the Howard County lexicon," O'Rourke said at a news conference yesterday.

"It doesn't serve any useful purpose. And I'm saying very clearly that this is a public school system, not a collection of 66 independent buildings," he said.

Jacqueline F. Brown, the district's director of support services, said school officials have known for some time that the focus-school designation had outlived its usefulness.

"We're past calling attention," Brown said. "Now we're at `what will we do?' We are past the need for a label. A process now is what we need."

The money will be used to test students and to train administrators and staff at 15 schools.

Dasher Green, Elkridge, Guilford, Jeffers Hill, Laurel Woods, Phelps Luck, Running Brook, Swansfield and Talbott Springs elementary schools, as well as Owen Brown, Wilde Lake, Mayfield Woods, Patuxent Valley and Murray Hill middle schools will be included. One school hasn't been chosen yet.

Bushy Park uses a system under which students know and understand their grades and their goals, as well as the goals of their classmates.

They take more responsibility for their own learning, Associate Superintendent Maurice F. Kalin said.

At Bushy Park, when teachers noticed children were being pulled from reading and math lessons for extra-curricular activities, such as band and chorus, that practice was immediately dropped.

The former "focus schools" still will maintain the additional resources the label earned them, O'Rourke said, but in the next year the district "will be assessing the impact of all those resources."

The budget also includes money to address O'Rourke's directive that principals should by year's end hand him the names of third-graders who are below grade level in reading or math, along with a personalized plan for improvement.

For example, the budget includes $135,000 to expand the elementary summer school math and reading programs in select schools and $67,600 to expand the elementary math tutoring program.

O'Rourke said in October that he would take personal responsibility for the third-graders, showing yet another example of his hands-on approach.

Community concerns

O'Rourke included some items in his budget in response community concerns.

For example, it provides for additional registrars in the five high schools with highest enrollments.

Students and counselors have been pleading with the Board of Education for months to provide extra registrars.

And, in response to community concerns about parents having to purchase expensive graphing calculators, the budget requests $50,000 for the devices.

The budget seeks $280.1 million in county funds, an increase of $31.8 million over last year's county allocation of $248.3 million.

But it is less a list of what programs need funding next year and more "meant to portray a direction," O'Rourke said. "It is more than just trying to negotiate the best deal for next year."

After O'Rourke's presentation of the budget last night, school board members called the plan "inspiring."

"I do hope that some of our County Council and our county executive were listening on cable this evening," board Chairwoman Jane B. Schuchardt said.

Push on accountability

O'Rourke said the budget has an emphasis on answering the questions "What do we want for our children?" and "How will we provide it?"

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