French wary on proposed changes

School board chief sees possible power shift to O'Rourke's staff

Howard County

March 28, 2003|By Tricia Bishop | Tricia Bishop,SUN STAFF

Proposed new rules for policymaking within the Howard school system - considered one of the Board of Education's top responsibilities - suggest a major shift in power from the board to the superintendent's staff, said Sandra H. French, the board chairman.

At a board meeting last night, French bemoaned what she saw as a lack of input from the public and board members in creation of the first draft of the new rules, which has been under development by School Superintendent John R. O'Rourke's staff since 2001.

A critical management and performance review of the system suggested the need for the rules.

"It's our baby," French said. "We should take more direct ownership of it rather than letting staff write it for us."

French, along with board members Virginia Charles and Patricia Gordon (who later changed her mind) wanted two board members to sit in with the committee working on the policy manual, which is not yet available to the public nor officially before the board for consideration.

That way, French said, members could offer advice and perhaps an alternate draft that retains the board's policymaking powers.

The board is in charge of policymaking and also takes action on approving school system regulations. A third component, implementation, belongs to the superintendent.

But the draft developed by O'Rourke's staff suggests taking away the board's vote on regulations, which are already developed by the staff, and instead bringing them before members on an information basis only. It is a procedure most school systems follow, but French said Howard is not most school systems and that its current process is best.

Another document under development by O'Rourke's staff defines the relationship between the superintendent and the board, which French also wanted a hand in shaping.

The superintendent is the board's only employee, and to allow him and his staff to dictate the nature of their connection is a little like letting the workers control the bosses, French said, even though the board would have the last word, in the form of a vote on the final documents.

The draft of the new procedural policies has been put before county PTA members and members of the Citizen's Advisory Committee (CAC) for input, and both bodies are suggesting revisions.

Ellen Giles, CAC's chairman, said the process is in the very early stages and that there will be plenty of time for more public and board involvement.

"They're so far from being anything real right now," Giles said.

Board members Courtney Watson and James P. O'Donnell said that instead of sending two representatives to look at the documents, the goal would be better served by discussing them in public work sessions so all members could participate along with the community.

O'Rourke agreed, noting that to be the traditional way of handling policymaking - even policies on policymaking - and offering his "strong recommendation" that the board not change its methods.

His plea swayed Gordon, whose vote made for the majority rule that said the board will look at the policies in public work sessions once they are formally presented to members in a coming meeting.

Mamie Perkins, the school system's director of human resources, also gave the board hiring data last night and said the competition from other counties for teachers - particularly for men, those with experience and people of color - is intense. Howard's biggest competitors include Anne Arundel, Baltimore, Montgomery and Prince George's counties.

The school system offers $1,000 signing bonuses for the first 125 teachers certified in critical shortage areas such as English, computer science, math and physical therapy.

The report, which covered staffing trends from Oct. 1, 2001, through Sept. 30 last year, said 472 teachers were hired to replace the 372 who left and to accommodate 948 additional students.

Nearly 46 percent of the new hires started their careers in Howard with no prior professional experience. About 21 percent of them had between one and four years of experience and the rest had more than five.

Nearly 44 percent of them hold at least a master's degree.

Of concern to school officials and board members was a disturbing trend showing teachers are leaving the county more frequently for other systems in Maryland and that retention rates of new teachers are not as high as the system would like.

Perkins pointed to teacher support as one of the keys to improving both categories and said it was something the system has to constantly reassess.

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