Hopefuls differ on group homes

Smith, Riley are mostly in accord, however, at forum on education issues

October 03, 2002|By Jonathan D. Rockoff | Jonathan D. Rockoff,SUN STAFF

The two major-party candidates for Baltimore County executive agreed last night that the school system's teachers and principals should be paid more but disagreed on what to do about the county's group homes for troubled youths.

Democrat James T. Smith Jr. and Republican Douglas B. Riley met face-to-face to discuss education issues at a forum at Loch Raven High School.

Riley sought several times to blame Smith for the policies of the current county executive, C.A. Dutch Ruppersberger, whom he accused of being a micromanager of the school system. Riley pledged to solicit honest input from the superintendent and school board on the budget.

Technology funding

"I will not send a mark to the school board and say this is the amount you must send back to me," Riley said. Riley pledged to fully fund $12 million in technology spending for the schools. Smith, too, supported the funding.

Riley's repeated assaults on Ruppersberger eventually prompted Smith to respond, "I'm not Dutch Ruppersberger." He said Riley's attack "doesn't have anything to do with me."

That exchange, more than halfway through the hour-and-a-half forum before 100 people, marked one of the few moments of disagreement between the two candidates on improving the public school system.

On the issue of group homes, which send hundreds of students, many of them discipline problems, to the county schools, Riley again attacked Ruppersberger, saying the county executive's regional policies have led to more group homes in the county.

"That is the wrong approach," Riley said. He said the solution to the problems posed by group homes is bettering the schools in the county's older neighborhoods, which he said would encourage middle-class families to stay there.

Smith said he would work with state agencies that regulate group homes to limit the numbers of homes in each neighborhood so that schools aren't overwhelmed by students from the homes.

"It presents a challenge that can almost overwhelm all of the school system when there is such a high concentration," Smith said, adding that he would seek more state funding for educating the students and make sure the schools have their files so that teachers are aware of the students' needs.

Riley derided Smith's written education plan as unaffordable and based on conventional wisdom.

Smith said that was unfair to a document that was put together after much thought and input from experts.

PTA is co-sponsor

Last night's event was sponsored by the PTA Council of Baltimore County and other parent groups.

In responses to questions about education submitted to them ahead of time, the candidates stressed the importance of the public schools and vowed to work with school officials, parents and other groups.

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