Pair once on school board will need countywide focus as County Council members

EDUCATION NOTEBOOK

December 03, 2006|By John-John Williams IV

With two former school board members set to assume new roles on the Howard County Council, some might think that the school system will have an automatic stamp of approval when it comes to budget funding.

Not so.

While understanding the school system's needs, Mary Kay Sigaty and Courtney Watson will have to focus on countywide issues as two of the four new members to join the five-member council.

"The County Council will have two members that are very familiar with the school system's budget," Watson said of the operating budget that pays day-to-day expenses and the capital budget for construction projects. "One thing that I have learned is where there is excess funding in the education budget. It will be harder for the school system to pull wool over our eyes, but on the other hand, we will be great advocates for the school system."

Added Sigaty: "This gives us a better relationship between Howard County and the board."

School system officials said the capital budget approval process for fiscal 2008 might be more difficult than it normally is because an excise tax on new homes that produced $60 million for school construction over the past three years has expired.

In September - shortly after Superintendent Sydney L. Cousin unveiled a $99.6 million capital budget for the 2007-2008 school year - board members discussed scrapping several maintenance projects for older facilities because of a lack of funds.

Cousin will announce his operating budget next month. After the school board's approval, the spending plans will go to the county executive, who can make cuts. The County Council gets the final say, and members can restore funding that the executive removed - if they find a way to pay for it.

New board member Ellen Flynn Giles was cautiously optimistic.

"It's not going to be easier," Giles said about the approval process. "But there will be a good working relationship with the council."

Swearing-in

Five newly elected members of the school board will be sworn in at 5:30 p.m. tomorrow in Jim Rouse Theater at Wilde Lake High School.

The group includes four newcomers: Frank Aquino, an attorney and general counsel for an environmental consulting and engineering company; Larry Cohen, a retired school system administrator; Sandra H. French, a retired educator, former chairman of the school board and now a substitute teacher in county secondary schools; and Ellen Flynn Giles, a senior editor and analyst with Platts, a division of McGraw-Hill Co., who has been a fixture on school PTAs and systemwide committees for 22 years.

Current board member Patricia S. Gordon was re-elected.

The term for Diane Mikulis, the current vice chairman, expires in 2008.

Tomorrow's ceremony marks the board's expansion from five to seven members.

And Sigaty, whose term expires in 2008, has left the board, having won the District 4 County Council seat. Her position will be filled by an appointment by the county executive.

The expanded board's first meeting will be held Dec. 14 at the Board of Education building.

Conference challenge

With the implementation of new scheduling for parent-teacher conferences - held for three days before the Thanksgiving break - some parents found the process much easier.

But for the system's growing international population, the scheduling was nothing short of a nightmare.

"[The new program] works beautifully for a majority of the parents," said Young-chan Han, a specialist with the system's International Student and Family Outreach Office. "But some of the parents who do not have the access to computers, no language and have limited computer skills, it was challenging for them. We worked extra hours so that we did not lose any parents."

In the past, Han's office has provided interpreters for international parents, but this year's computer registration component added another complicated layer to the process.

This year, middle and high school parents were required to schedule their conferences, using a new computer program. Schedules for elementary school pupils had been set up by the school system.

In all, the International Student and Family Outreach Office processed 1,600 requests for interpreters this marking period.

Han said most of her staff had the added duty of going online and setting up the conferences between parents and teachers.

That required her office to track down student identification numbers and birth dates. It also required staff members to repeatedly reschedule meetings as time slots began to fill.

"We were amazed with all the things we had to do," Han said. "Requests were coming two, three days before the meeting. There was a lot of pressure to have interpreters."

Han's office predicted that there would be problems, so shortly after the school year began an effort was made to contact international parents at the middle and high school levels.

Han's office will evaluate the scheduling process this month and come up with more efficient methods to accommodate parents.

"We don't want to leave parents behind," Han said.

john-john.williams@baltsun.com

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