Now that the results of the long-awaited performance audit of Howard's schools have been released, school and county officials face the arduous task of determining which of the report's many recommendations are valid, valuable, doable or too difficult to even consider.
Houston-based WCL Enterprises, the consultants who studied the schools for six months, presented the 2-inch-thick Management and Performance Review of the school system in two sessions yesterday - the morning session for staff members and the media, the evening session for the public.
Howard schools Superintendent John R. O'Rourke said he was excited about the release of the study and was "looking forward to capitalizing on it," but he refused to comment on details in the report, including individual findings.
"There's lots of things about this report that would give us a great deal of energy," O'Rourke said. "That doesn't mean there's general agreement on all the specifics. I think we need to test those out."
County Executive James N. Robey - whose office paid for half of the $250,000 audit - said the study offered many suggestions for improvement, but some, including spending $3.45 million more in the capital budget for technology, were "difficult to swallow."
"Let's be honest," Robey said, "there's some serious challenges here."
Though there were many commendations of the system, WCL-head Bill Lenhart said his consultants nonetheless found that Howard schools:
Lack a "clear unified vision and leadership to achieve higher performance levels."
Must change the approach from a "system of individual schools," to "one school system."
Should involve the community more in "critical areas."
Lenhart said Howard County is "woefully" behind in technology, has seen stagnant performance on national tests and Maryland School Performance Assessment Program exams and has done little to narrow the achievement gap between ethnic groups in the system.
The report pointed out that no policies specifically define "where the board's role stops and where the expectations for the superintendent begin," and no "integrated planning process" ties long-range plans and priorities with programs and monitors and evaluates those programs and the personnel who oversee them.
"As a matter of fact, if I'm a principal, I don't even have to send my [school] plan in. Nobody ever sees it," Lenhart said, noting the absence of a link between student performance and principals' evaluations.
The consultants recommended several changes to programs and policies that would address some of their observations - and, at the same time, save the system about $1 million.
Some of those suggestions include:
Lowering class sizes in kindergarten and third grade.
Spending $3.45 million more on technology.
Limiting the scope of site-based management - which allows principals supreme autonomy over their school's administration.
Eliminating many of the positions added to the staff at low-performing schools, in favor of a more uniform program of resource allocation.
"We're suggesting that those be restructured to two positions and two positions only, for specific purposes, with no variations, controlled locally," Lenhart said.
O'Rourke said it will take time to determine the value of each of Lenhart's suggestions.
Reducing class sizes in two more grades, for example, may be too difficult in a school district using more than 100 portable classrooms to relieve crowding.
O'Rourke did say, however, that he was particularly interested in improving the relationship between the board and superintendent and clarifying their roles.
"I'm not in a position right now to say just how good this report is," he said. "It's got to come in, hit the table, have some time to have an impact."
O'Rourke said he plans to report to the board Nov. 20 on how his office will address issues brought up in the audit.
The performance audit was a joint effort of the school system and the county government, intended to evaluate all aspects of the system, from salaries and hiring practices to building operations and students' academic performance.
Consultants visited Howard schools and school administrative offices for months under a contract to produce a final report by the end of the school year. Outside criticism of drafts of the report delayed its release, however, until yesterday - four months after it was due.
Some have said privately that the report's impact probably will be minimal, considering the many questions about drafts of the report, and because - rather than intricately detailing problems in the system - the audit mainly supports or confirms O'Rourke's current direction.
"There's lots of this that parallels my thinking," O'Rourke said.
Many of Lenhart's recommendations, in fact, have been implemented in the schools, including consolidating all technology-related functions in one department, making school redistricting more community-friendly and hiring someone - namely Roger Plunkett - to monitor school plans and programs.
School system spokeswoman Patti Caplan said the consultants did what they were paid to do.
"I don't see the recommendations at all as being critical of the school system," she said. "I see this as being what we asked for. Sometimes you get your blinders on; you're so close to it, you can't see the forest for the trees."