Plan to unite school advisory panels debated in Baltimore County

Opponents say proposal seeks to stifle their views

April 26, 2005|By Sara Neufeld | Sara Neufeld,SUN STAFF

A proposal to consolidate the five area advisory councils that for decades have provided the Baltimore County school board with community input has pitted longtime activists frustrated by a waning number of volunteers to run the groups against critics who say the plan is designed to stifle opposing viewpoints.

School board President James R. Sasiadek wants to combine the area councils, in part because the current system has not provided the board with views from all corners of the county, he says. At issue is how parents and other community members would have a say in how the school system is run.

Spearheading the debate is Walter R. Hayes, chairman of the Northeast Area Advisory Council, who often challenges the school board, particularly on matters of school crowding, and who says he plans to apply for a seat on the board.

"I think this is a horrible idea," he said of the consolidation proposal at a school board meeting this month. "It borders on shameful. ... If you don't like what the northeast says, just ignore us."

Hayes believes that the proposal is meant to target him and others who urge the board to build a new high school to relieve crowding in Perry Hall, Towson and elsewhere. The backers of a new school have been the most vocal critics of the consolidation plan.

When another leader in the fight for a new school applied to serve on the northeast council this year, Hayes learned that the board would not make any new appointments to the councils until restructuring is complete.

Proponents of consolidating the councils say the idea is not a personal attack against anyone, but rather an effort to be more effective and efficient. "This is not against Walter Hayes," said school board member Donald L. Arnold. "I can guarantee, it's not targeted against anybody."

Sasiadek said Hayes should not have been surprised by the idea. "This has been in the works for years," he said.

Sasiadek and Vicki Schultz-Unger, coordinator of the five councils, are leading the consolidation project. They say the move will be consistent with the direction of the school system under Superintendent Joe A. Hairston, who restructured the administration so that decisions previously made by five area superintendents are now made in school system headquarters.

The advisory councils were created in the 1970s, when the five regions of the school system operated with substantial independence. The idea of consolidation surfaced about six years ago in response to declining participation, said Maggie Kennedy, the councils' coordinator at the time.

"People are selective about where they're giving their volunteer hours," Kennedy said. "A lot of folks are already involved in their own school."

Another systemwide volunteer group, the Baltimore County PTA Council, has also struggled to fill all its leadership positions in recent years.

With five area advisory councils, Schultz-Unger said, the quality of input being provided to the school board is "very uneven." None has the maximum number of members allowed, 17.

"Some councils are functioning very well, and other councils are operating with minimal participation," Schultz-Unger said. "We have some that look like they have a good roster, but everybody's not showing up and participating."

Jodi Shaefer, the advocate for a new high school whose application to the northeast council was turned down, said consolidation would exacerbate the attendance problem.

"The reality is, Baltimore County is very big," she said. "If you've got a 7 o'clock meeting in Owings Mills and I live in Perry Hall, I'm going to think hard before I go to that meeting."

Schultz-Unger said the goal of a single council would be to increase diversity by recruiting from a wider spectrum of schools and community groups. She worries that representatives of Dulaney and Perry Hall high schools dominate their respective advisory councils, leaving dozens of other schools with little or no voice.

Meanwhile, she said, individual councils are covering issues that are relevant to the entire district. "You're more effective when you come together to express a concern," she said.

As one entity, the council would continue to hold regional hearings on the school system budget and regional meetings with state lawmakers.

Sasiadek said consolidating the councils is his priority before the summer, when his presidency ends and his term on the board expires. He said he plans to apply for reappointment, but Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. did not renew the terms of his predecessor's appointees last year. Hayes said he plans to apply for a seat on the board.

The question remains whether Sasiadek has the power as board president to consolidate the councils, or whether the matter must go before the 12-member board for a vote.

Sasiadek said he is researching the issue, but he believes there is adequate support among board members in the event of a vote.

Board members interviewed had varying views on a consolidated council. Some said they learned of the idea only recently and have not yet formed an opinion. While Arnold, John A. Hayden III and Joy Shillman said consolidation is worth trying, Rodger C. Janssen said he opposes the idea.

"They're supposed to be the group that's out there in the local community, bringing issues and concerns in the community to the board," Janssen said.

A work session, led by Sasiadek and former board member Phyllis E. Ettinger, to hash out the details of a consolidated council is scheduled tomorrow. The proposal is to be presented May 4 at a joint meeting of the advisory councils.

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