Schools summit is likely this year

Forum would draw parties with a role in education

Meeting `is long overdue'

Stakeholders could focus on budget, overcrowding

August 15, 2004|By Ted Shelsby | Ted Shelsby,SUN STAFF

Plans for an education summit -- a concept that has been talked about in Harford County for nearly five years -- are finally coming together and the forum could be held before the end of the year.

"We are still in the discussion process, but the idea is being well received by more and more of our elected officials," said Robert B. Thomas Jr., president of the county school board.

Thomas, the force behind the summit, said he hopes to bring together all parties with a role in education to discuss the status and future of education in the county.

The proposed summit is something that Thomas has been calling for since 2000 and that others say is overdue.

Thomas and others involved in the process envision a session at which school board and administration officials will huddle with members of the County Council, the county's legislative delegation, the county executive's office, area PTAs, the union representing teachers and the mayors of Bel Air, Havre de Grace and Aberdeen.

"I think this is long overdue," said Cindy Mumby, a Bel Air resident who has a daughter starting at Bel Air Middle School and a son at Bel Air High School, and who frequently attends school board meetings. "I can't see the wisdom of not communicating. The Board of Education can't do a thing without partnering with their funding sources, the county administration and the delegation."

Mumby also had a piece of advice for summit planners: "Don't forget the parents."

Thomas said he wants the summit to have a focused agenda "so that the time will be well spent. It's not going to be a free-for-all."

He envisions a discussion of the type of school system the county wants and what form it might take in five or 10 years.

"I believe it is time that we start thinking differently," Thomas said. "We have to start looking outside the box. The time has come for us -- all of us -- to get in the boat and paddle in the same direction, or we won't make any forward progress."

Thomas said the summit likely would occur before the first week of December.

"Anytime you get together all the stakeholders to discuss education, that's a good thing," said Deb Merlock, vice president of legislation for the Harford Council of PTAs. She said she hopes that the talks would lead to the hiring of more teachers and reduce class sizes.

Merlock said it was frustrating to watch the past two years as the school board made a case for hiring more teachers only to end up with none after the budget was finalized.

"When you get people together brainstorming, you can't lose," Merlock said.

County Executive James M. Harkins said he is ready to join the movement.

"I'm ready, willing and able to participate in any and all groups to further the objectives of education," Harkins said through his spokeswoman, Merrie Street.

Harkins said he tries to meet with schools Superintendent Jacqueline C. Haas a couple times a month to discuss education.

Although the county's delegation to the General Assembly might not agree with the County Council, especially when it comes to funding education, Del. Barry Glassman said he is "willing to sit down and talk."

Glassman, the chairman of the delegation, said he would try to bring as many of the delegates and senators to the meeting as possible.

"It's a good idea to talk," Glassman said, as long as the discussions don't get bogged down on legislation. He was referring to the council's approval of a resolution in June seeking legislative approval for additional funding sources to pay for school construction and renovation.

During the legislative session that ended in April, the council was granted the authority to impose an impact fee on new homes to help pay for schools. The council now wants the right to raise real estate transfer taxes and to impose an excise tax on new construction.

Republican Councilman Richard C. Slutzky, a former teacher and wrestling coach at Aberdeen High School, said a dialogue could help solve the problem of crowded schools in the county.

Parents have complained over the past year about schools that pack in 25 percent to nearly 30 percent more students than they are designed to handle.

Parents packed school board and County Council meetings last spring and argued that such crowding is dangerous and not conducive to learning.

Slutzky said a summit also could address the need to adjust salaries and benefits to retain better teachers. He said Maryland has the worst teacher retirement system in the country.

On the topic of teacher salaries, he said: "Harford can't compete with surrounding counties. Even Cecil has a higher pay scale for teachers. We have got to look at things we can do to bring in the kind of people we want to educate our kids.

"I think Bob Thomas has come up with a good idea."

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