Schools get a bill for extra $100,000

Calculators needed for assessment testing a last-minute surprise

Howard County

March 14, 2003|By Tricia Bishop | Tricia Bishop,SUN STAFF

The Howard County Board of Education voted last night to grant waivers delaying implementation of new kindergarten age requirements and questioned the value of spending $250,000 on a customer-satisfaction survey.

Members also learned the new state assessment tests unexpectedly cost the school system $100,000 last month.

And they will again have to seek an opinion from the state attorney general, but not about open-meetings regulations, as they have before.

This time, members' interest is in getting more than $500 a year put into a retirement fund by the school system for each of them.

"If you're entitled to it, why not avail yourself of it?" asked Bruce Venter, the school system's chief business officer.

In May, the state changed the entrance age for kindergartners and outlined a four-step plan for achieving the new goal, which requires pupils to be age 5 or older on Sept. 1 of the year they enter school, beginning in 2006. The current cutoff is Dec. 31 of the school year.

Step one says that this fall, children who turn 5 after Nov. 30 should wait another year before they start in public school. But the board chose to offer waivers, retaining the Dec. 31 cutoff, to interested families.

"This is something that the parents weren't ready for," board member Patricia Gordon said in explaining her support of the waiver, which will be available only this coming school year. After that, the cutoff will move up a month each year until the goal is reached.

The entry age was changed because of data suggesting younger children cannot handle the rigors of kindergarten.

In other business, Sandra H. French, the board chairman, and member Virginia Charles initially balked at a $250,000 price tag they saw listed on a purchasing bid recommendation sheet.

The money will be used to develop and conduct a survey of parents, teachers and children in the county to assess the school system's performance.

"The nature of the information is such that I would label it invaluable," said school Superintendent John R. O'Rourke, who called the investigation key to improving county education.

Charles said the money could be better spent, but French was won over and the board approved a motion for the school system to begin searching for contractors to do the survey.

It was a tough figure to swallow after finding out that $100,000 had to be taken from the emergency textbook fund in February to buy the required calculators for students taking the new Maryland State Assessment tests.

"There was no way we could have budgeted for this," said Robert Glascock, assistant superintendent for curriculum and instruction. "It was unknown to us at the time."

Last-minute surprise

Glascock said the state sprang the calculator requirements on the county at the last minute.

In another last-minute move, board members, many of whom have already served several years, finally got around to finding out if they are eligible for retirement benefits.

The State Retirement Agency sent the board a letter saying members can earn benefits once they have five years of time logged (based on 500 service hours per fiscal year).

New board members, such as Courtney Watson, whose terms are four years, instead of the previous six, would still be eligible, as long as they packed in the work during the proper number of fiscal years.

Members who signed on would be required to contribute 2 percent of their annual earnings.

Legal salary limits

On advice of counsel, they would also pay the employer's standard portion of 4.4 percent until the state attorney general can offer an opinion whether that money would be considered compensation, which would push the board's salary above that mandated by law: $12,000 for members and $14,000 for the chairman.

In the audience for the second half of the meeting last night were unfamiliar faces on a mission led by the Rev. John L. Wright.

Wright said he had brought a busload of parishioners from First Baptist Church of Guilford in an effort to increase participation of African-Americans in education.

"If we don't watch it, we're going to be on the lower end of the scale," Wright said in reference to educational apathy.

He has asked churches - particularly black churches - in Howard County to rally their members and work toward greater involvement in the school system and an improved relationship with teachers, administrators and the board.

To that end, he said he expects more field trips to the board building.

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