Education top priority in race for executive

Riley, Smith offer ideas for Balto. County schools

Republican promotes mentoring

Democrat would look to businesses for funds

October 21, 2002|By Jonathan D. Rockoff | Jonathan D. Rockoff,SUN STAFF

Republican Douglas B. Riley and Democrat James T. Smith Jr., the candidates for Baltimore County executive, agree that education is a top priority, but their plans for schools differ sharply.

Riley's major prescriptions would entail hundreds of millions of dollars in new spending, while Smith's key policy proposals would draw on corporate largesse and a greater participation by community colleges.

The county executive and County Council play a significant role in the running of the school system because they control the amount of school spending and the general direction of that spending.

Activist parents have lobbied county officials to "fully fund" the county's school system, which is the nation's 23rd largest, with more than 108,000 students. The county's teachers and principals are clamoring for higher pay.

Both candidates have expressed support for the various demands. It is in the issues they emphasize, however, where their differences stand out.

Their opposing approaches to new spending are perhaps most apparent in their ideas for making public schooling more equitable.

Although Superintendent Joe A. Hairston has made sure that all schools receive the same amount of funding for each student no matter where they are, teachers and principals often transfer out of struggling schools.

Smith and Riley favor placing experienced teachers and principals in those schools, and both support giving the educators financial incentives for taking the assignments.

Smith, who in his public talks and interviews notes the financial difficulties facing the state and county in the current poor economy, would solicit private money to fund the incentives.

Riley, however, would use county money to fund the incentives. "I sometimes have trouble with the county shaking down businesses for something," he said.

The Republican's spending plan also includes "hundreds of millions of dollars" for new construction such as building schools to cut the sizes of Woodlawn and Perry Hall high schools, which have 2,000 or more students.

"That way you can have the individual attention that is required. That way you can have the smaller class size," Riley said.

Smith also favors reducing class size, but he would use Thornton Commission money pledged by the state. The General Assembly approved that extra school spending this year. It is supposed to be phased in over the next several years.

In many cases, the Democrat pushes programs that do not entail much additional spending. He would encourage greater participation of community colleges in educating county high school students.

For Smith, the community colleges could help the students think about and prepare for college by offering courses to high school students. And the colleges could train students in technical skills needed to become electricians and mechanics and for other jobs.

"We have needs for the technical crafts" -- such as electrician, plumber, mechanic -- "all the way up to high-tech," Smith said. He stressed that such training would be for students who want it, not to discourage students from going to college.

The candidates' differences go beyond spending, too.

In discussing education, Smith emphasizes that the school system should pay heed to the needs of local industry and business.

He would invite area businesses and unions to speak with school officials about the skills new workers require, so schools are teaching students what they need to know to become attractive, capable employees.

Riley wants the school system to offer "mentoring" to parents whose children are coming to school late, not doing homework or sending other warning signals.

School staff, social workers and other county officials would meet with the parents to discuss the importance of education and review how they can get that message across to their children.

Mark Beytin, president of the Teachers Association of Baltimore County, said the union endorses Smith because he has pledged to work with it to improve schools and keep quality teachers.

"We applaud his intent to use Thornton money to reduce class size and his understanding of the need to deal effectively with disruptive and truant students," Beytin said.

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