Misplaced priorities at Balto. Co. schools

Our view: Even with tough budget choices to make, teaching jobs should be the last place for the ax to fall

March 14, 2011

Given these challenging economic times, most every agency of government — public schools included — is having to do more with less, and that's entirely appropriate. But the proposal in Baltimore County to reduce the number of teachers by 196 before the next school year raises serious questions about whether Superintendent Joe A. Hairston has his priorities in order.

While that reduction is expected to be accomplished through attrition and won't necessitate layoffs, it clearly could have a significant impact on high schools, which are taking the brunt of the cuts. Some of the county's largest schools, such as Kenwood, Dulaney and Randallstown, will have to get by with as many as 19 fewer teachers.

That will mean fewer electives and advanced placement classes and larger class sizes. Some schools are contemplating classes of 40 students or more. That's bound to have a negative effect on the quality of classroom instruction.

So, just how desperate is the Baltimore County Public School system? Apparently, not very. Next year's proposed budget is actually slightly larger than this year's.

Mr. Hairston's budget has room for new positions in the superintendent's office, hotel meeting room rentals, new textbooks, new computers and other technology. It even allocates $69,000 for step ladders. Surely if times are so desperate that class sizes must expand, shouldn't any of those be higher priorities for budget cuts?

Granted, difficult decisions have to be made. And the teaching staff in Baltimore County did not shrink much when enrollment declined several years ago. But now the teaching payroll is due to fall to fiscal 2004 levels while the enrollment is actually growing.

Teacher union officials say there are better places to cut, particularly at the administrative level. The union's own budget analysis points out that over the past three years, the number of nonteaching jobs has grown substantially, with Mr. Hairston's own office one of the worst offenders (with 11.2 more professional staff since 2009).

County Executive Kevin Kamenetz says he wants to take a closer look at the school system's operating budget to potentially "fine tune" it. While Mr. Kamenetz and the county council have no direct oversight of the school system, we hope they will do more than fine tune the budget but will question Mr. Hairston closely about what he is not choosing to cut — and whether those choices serve the best interests of students.

If the budgetary ax were falling as hard on every other function of county schools as teacher staffing, then perhaps these reductions in the high school would be entirely justified. But cutting $12 million in teacher salaries at a time when the system is boosting new technology spending by $6 million suggests that's simply not the case.

Not that we would necessarily endorse the Teachers Association of Baltimore County having the last word on how taxpayer dollars should be spent. Instead, the highest priority ought to be on what provides the children of Baltimore County the best educational opportunities.

Perhaps that means targeted layoffs, postponing technology purchases or even cutting out step raises for teachers for one year. This much is clear: When the going gets tough, the tough don't make increasing class sizes and cutting out electives for potential college-bound students their first, second or even 20th choice to save money.

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