August 06, 2006

Include public in schools' plans

How does Harford County Public Schools plan to spend the public's money? Some people think that's none of the public's business.

The Harford County board of education is usually diligent when seeking public input on a variety of matters. Yet the board allowed the superintendent's senior staff to cut the public out of the planning process for the new Bel Air High School.

The PTSA, community groups and the Bel Air town commissioners had all sought involvement on several occasions over the past 18 months. But when the appropriate meetings were organized by the superintendent's senior staff, the public was simply shut out.

Such exclusion is not only unprecedented; it is contrary to the state department of education's strong recommendation that planning for new school facilities include parents and other community representatives. Bel Air High School's principal made commendable efforts to inform parents of aspects of the plan after decisions were made.

But the PTSA and other community groups were excluded from the active participation we sought directly from members of the superintendent's senior staff. The consequences of this exclusion were evident in the design for a new auditorium that did not reflect the needs of the Bel Air High School community.

The Bel Air High School PTSA expressed our concerns about the impact on the programs that are so important to our students. The downsizing of the auditorium from 900 seats in our current building, to less than 540 seats in the new building, would have meant that activities such as Freshman Day, Back-to-School-Night, concerts, and the talent show, to name a few, would no longer fit the families who regularly participate in these events, let alone those that we seek to encourage in our growing community.

We would have gladly expressed these concerns earlier in the process, as the superintendent has suggested, if her senior staff had not prevented our involvement at that time.

Rather than reinforce the need for this involvement, several members of the board of education instead relied on the senior staff's insistence that community input was unnecessary, because the plan for Bel Air was based on the design of Aberdeen High School.

But Bel Air High School will be larger than Aberdeen; it designed to accommodate 457 more students. A core space such as the auditorium needed to reflect that difference. If the added cost was the problem, a solution was being offered by the very community groups deemed superfluous by the school system's senior administration.

The Bel Air town commissioners had long ago envisioned a new Bel Air High School auditorium large enough for joint use, allowing the community to benefit from cultural events held there during the summer months and at other times when it was not in use by the school.

The town commissioners made their interest formally known in 2005, twice, in letters to Executive Director of Secondary Education David Volrath, with copies sent to both the superintendent and the board president. In October of that year, the town commissioners requested a meeting and indicated that they were willing to bring "substantial financial resources" to the discussion.

But this request for collaboration was neither granted, nor was its existence even shared with most members of the board of education. This was not only a failure to act in good faith, the lack of communication spawned unfounded charges against the community for reacting at the "eleventh hour" and put some board members in the position of speaking and acting on an important issue without the benefit of all the facts. More to the point, a golden opportunity for Bel Air High School was almost lost.

When the plans for the smaller auditorium were finally revealed this June, the Bel Air community reached out to the school system once again. Chairman of the Town Commissioners Terence Hanley and Vice-Chairman Jim McMahan, in a demonstration of exemplary leadership, held a meeting of interested parties, including the PTSA, to explore the possibilities for a joint-use facility.

Thanks to the Town of Bel Air's Chris Schlehr and Sallee Filkins, Harford County Public Schools' Kathleen Sanner and board of education Vice President Tom Fidler, a productive discussion ensued. Following this meeting and with the added support of town commissioners Rob Preston and Joan Morrissey-Ward, Chairman Hanley then contacted County Executive David Craig, and a deal was struck to provide the necessary funding to add 260 seats to the auditorium space.

The Bel Air High School PTSA commends these town commissioners for their representation of the public interest. The PTSA would also like to thank County Councilman Dick Slutsky and Delegate Susan McComas for their part in this community effort.

Finally, special thanks are due to County Executive David Craig, who has already made an unprecedented commitment to public school facilities in Harford County, but who saw the chance to leverage a small additional investment into a broader benefit for all of Harford County to enjoy.

These leaders have demonstrated that they are accountable to the public they serve. The board of education should ensure that Harford County Public Schools do the same.

Cindy Mumby Bel Air

The writer is president of Bel Air High School PTSA

410-838-8682 (day & evening)

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