In Caroline, waiting for a needed boost

Funding: The governor's budget contains none of the added money a task force called for, so the poorest counties consider going to court.

February 20, 2002|By Howard Libit | Howard Libit,SUN STAFF

PRESTON - In the school system that spends the least per child in Maryland, just taking care of basic needs requires something extra.

The elementary school's bright classroom walls? Teachers came in during summer vacation to do the painting themselves.

The new bookshelf that just got installed in the principal's office? The custodian crafted it out of an old wooden pallet.

And those big, heavy-duty staplers? They were salvaged from a trucking company that went out of business a few years ago.

"Imagine if the teachers and other staff didn't have to do those things, because we had the money to buy bookshelves and have maintenance staffs to paint the walls," says Susan Frank, principal of Preston Elementary School. "Think what a difference we could make if they could spend that time and energy thinking about instruction."

For a school system with as few dollars as Caroline County, the $1.1 billion in increased state education spending recently recommended by a Maryland task force represents things that educators and parents can now only dream about - reading specialists in elementary schools, a broad array of advanced placement classes for high-achieving students, maybe even pay raises for teachers that would put them on par with their Eastern Shore peers.

"What couldn't we do with that money?" asks Jennifer Shull, who has a daughter in fourth grade at Denton Elementary School. "One of the things they've had to cut are classes if your child is gifted.

"If your child excels, they just have to move along at the same pace as everybody else because there isn't any money for any extras like that."

In many ways, the struggles of the small rural systems of the Eastern Shore and Western Maryland were why the Thornton Commission was created two years ago - to reduce inequities and ensure that schools have enough money to meet state student achievement standards.

And if the commission's recommendations aren't carried out this year, officials in those systems say they're ready to file a lawsuit against the state for not meeting the educational funding obligations of Maryland's Constitution.

Under Thornton's recommendations, the $2.9 billion spent by the state on public schools this year would increase by almost 10 percent next year. The rest of the $1.1 billion boost would be phased in over the remaining four years and require greater local spending.

Fate in General Assembly

But Gov. Parris N. Glendening's proposed budget does not include any money for the commission's plan. So its fate is perhaps the most significant issue facing the General Assembly this session, affecting a tight state budget, school spending in all 24 jurisdictions and the future of Maryland education.

Caroline County would receive $3 million in extra state funding next year under the Thornton recommendations. And within five years, it would get an additional $13.6 million - a pittance compared with the $305.8 million for Prince George's County.

But for Caroline, $13.6 million is a big windfall. Its entire school budget is only about $37 million.

"It would be huge," says Dane A. Coleman, president of Caroline's school board and former president of the state association of school boards.

With about 5,600 pupils, Caroline is Maryland's sixth-smallest system and has 10 schools: five elementary, two middle, two high and one vo-tech.

It is the last of the state's 24 jurisdictions in which agriculture is the primary source of income; one of its largest employers, Preston Trucking Co. Inc., went bankrupt 2 1/2 years ago.

Caroline's average wealth per pupil - a measure of property values and residents' incomes - is $146,535, more than $115,000 below the state average and greater than only Baltimore's.

As a result, Caroline spends $6,376 per pupil, compared with the state average of $7,622. The highest-spending school system is Montgomery, at $10,201 per pupil.

"There just aren't many dollars in Caroline to go out and tax," says state Sen. Richard F. Colburn, an Eastern Shore Republican and town manager of the Caroline town of Federalsburg.

Though rural, Caroline has many of the ills of urban Maryland. About 40 percent of its pupils qualify for free- or reduced-price lunch - a commonly used measure of poverty. Statewide, the average is 30 percent.

Language and salaries

Moreover, the county's agricultural nature has attracted growing Latino immigration - much of it Guatemalan and Mexican - forcing teachers and administrators to quickly learn how to instruct children who don't speak English. One small elementary alone has 20 percent of the county's non-native English speakers

"A lot of people think that poverty is limited to the big, urban school areas, but it's a big challenge in rural Maryland, too," says Larry L. Lorton, Caroline's superintendent. "It's something our teachers have to struggle with."

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