Executive hopefuls propose changes

Free laptops in 9th grade, work flexibility addressed

Maryland Votes 2006

October 11, 2006|By Larry Carson and Sandy Alexander | Larry Carson and Sandy Alexander,sun reporter

With Election Day four weeks away, Howard County's Republican and Democratic candidates for executive proposed big changes yesterday in the way the local government affects people's lives.

Republican County Council Chairman Christopher J. Merdon, joined by nonpartisan school board candidate Joshua Kaufman, made a sweeping proposal to transform Howard County's school system into a high-tech "School System of the Future," starting with free laptop computers for about 3,500 incoming high school freshman next year - at a cost of up to $4 million.

"It will completely change the way we learn," Merdon said. "We're behind the curve now."

Kaufman, who said he is politically neutral and is not endorsing Merdon's candidacy, said that for Howard's schools to remain first-rate, "we must lead and innovate."

In addition, the two said they want to give computers to students whose families can't afford them, eventually eliminate textbooks and the use of all paper in the school system, and "infuse technology into every aspect of a student's learning experience," according to a news release. Merdon said that if elected, he will finance the moves in phases using private donations, renegotiated cable franchise agreements, and budget savings - not by raising taxes. Eliminating textbooks, for example, could save up to $3 million a year alone, he said.

At almost the same time, Democrat Ken Ulman was talking about creating a task force - if he's elected - to study workplace flexibility ideas such as job sharing or telecommuting that would help the families of county employees balance their responsibilities at the office and at home, while serving as an example for private businesses.

Ulman, who is also a county councilman, was joined by Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski, who said the federal government has not done enough to support after school and child care programs.

"I believe that Howard County should be a leader in working for working families," said Ulman, who has recently discussed plans to expand the county's before and after school child care programs. He also said he plans to fund an expansion of Howard Community College's Children's Learning Center if he is elected.

Merdon said later he approves of Ulman's task force suggestion. But Ulman ridiculed Merdon's proposals as irresponsible campaign fodder. "These are empty promises from someone with a record of proposing huge cuts to the board of education," he said, calling the timing of the suggestions "laughable."

Ulman was referring to the 2003 County Council budget fight over a major income tax increase that Democrats supported and Republicans opposed. Merdon had suggested an alternate budget that would have cut the school board's request, along with funds for other county agencies. Ulman argued that if the Republicans' suggestions had been adopted, the system would have lost $130 million over the intervening four years.

Meanwhile, independent candidate C. Stephen Wallis, principal of Harper's Choice Middle School, said he has been using public-private partnerships for years to get computers, software and other high-tech help for needy students at his Columbia school.

The ideas from Ulman and Merdon aren't bad, he said, but their timing makes them suspect.

"Look at what the county can afford before going off half-cocked," he said about the Merdon and Kaufman suggestions. "Why didn't we look at all these things before? It's like the flavor of the week."

Mary Kay Sigaty, a school board member running for County Council as a Democrat, said the two candidates' ideas sound good, but "it's a county executive candidate forgetting whose responsibility is whose. It's the school board's responsibility to guide the public educational policy."

Merdon and Kaufman, the current school board chairman, said their proposals also are important in preparing county students for state tests they must pass by 2009 to graduate.

Merdon said he would provide more technical training and support for teachers, helping to make the Howard system a magnet for the best and brightest young teachers.

In addition, the two men proposed that any new school buildings meet certification as "green" environmentally friendly structures, and that the county start a pilot alternative fuels program for school buses.

Parents would be more involved with their children's work through the use of electronic Smartboards instead of blackboards. They would let parents monitor what their kids are doing in the classroom.

Sigaty wondered about the cost.

"It sounds great, but it's going to cost millions of dollars and we don't have the infrastructure to put laptops in every kid's hands," she said.

Ulman's proposal was more modest.

After talking to employees of the Columbia office of Arbitron, a media research firm, Ulman appeared at Howard Community College's Children's Learning Center to announce his plans to create a task force to study workplace flexibility issues in the county government.

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