Board opposes limits on meetings

School officials decide to fight Bobo's proposal

`Better to have a right'

January 10, 2003|By Tricia Bishop | Tricia Bishop,SUN STAFF

The Howard County school board narrowly voted to oppose potential legislation tightening its open-meetings restrictions last night during its first open session of the year.

Members also took testimony about next school year's calendar, voted on corrections to boundary line changes, and heard the superintendent's operating budget proposal.

In a vote of 3 to 2, with members Courtney Watson and James P. O'Donnell dissenting, the board decided to fight a proposed bill suggested by Del. Elizabeth Bobo, a Howard County Democrat. The draft bill would deny board members the ability to meet under executive function, which is allowed other public bodies, but outside the scope of the Open Meetings Act.

"It's much better to have a right and choose not to use it rather than be denied it," said Sandra H. French, the board chairman. "We can't help that other people are suspicious. We have been very scrupulous in observing the law."

The legislation under consideration, Ho.Co. 7-03, would remove the board's arguable right to meet for certain administrative reasons categorized as executive function, such as receiving informational reports from the school superintendent or discussing meeting arrangements.

Such meetings do not require public notification or record keeping and have been widely criticized for being subject to abuse, causing some to question the board's access to the ability.

"I favor Mrs. Bobo's bill," Watson said. "I don't see a reason why this board needs executive function. We're doing the business of the public."

Only four people spoke during the public hearing time set aside for next school year's tentative calendar, which asks for few changes.

The differences include an extra teacher work day and the addition of two early dismissal days for elementary and middle schools, along with half-days for nontest takers during high school assessment week in May.

The proposal includes between 12 and 20 half-days for students depending on grade, seven teacher work days and about 25 vacation or holiday days for a total of about 40 full days out of school. It is a number that has some concerned.

Sharon Nussbaum, whose two children attend Clarksville Middle School, asked the board to remember that many parents "cannot afford to take time off from work to be home with their children only because a school system decides to adopt a calendar with so many half-days."

Joe Staub, president of the Howard County Education Association, said those half-days and days off are vital for teachers.

"They provide valuable and critical time for teachers to do all the work that's necessary for them to do," he said.

The board will vote on the calendar proposal with any necessary amendments during its meeting Jan. 23.

Board members also corrected language in boundary line changes voted on in November for the 2003-2004 school year, finalizing the elementary and middle school redistricting process for now.

The changes affect pupils attending Rockburn, Waterloo and Ilchester elementary schools as well as Oakland Mills and Ellicott Mills middle schools.

The "real meat" of the evening, as French put it, was Superintendent John R. O'Rourke's presentation of his proposed operating budget, which would take effect in July.

The budget, which O'Rourke called "conservative," seeks a 12.7 percent increase - $49.6 million - in funds compared with the current budget of $390.8 million.

Increases in the proposal include $17.6 million to pay for staff salary raises and a $2.5 million increase in transportation costs caused by redistricting and projected enrollment gains.

The proposal asks the state to fund nearly $110 million of the $440.4 million total, which could be a problem because the state is facing its own fiscal problems.

"The economic climate presents some real challenges for us," O'Rourke conceded.

French loved the budget she said, largely for two reasons: It would complete a 12-year-old initiative that places a guidance counselor in every elementary school and also put a media specialist in each one. She was not ready to talk about the feasibility of getting the money.

"We'll look at the merits and then deal with the reality," she said. "I'd rather operate on hope than on doom."

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