School daze 2012

As I promised last night, here’s more on both the Wicomico County Council meeting and the budget input confab sponsored by the Wicomico County Board of Education at Parkside High School.

I’ll begin with the County Council meeting. You know what I said, but there was more to the story.

Once the assembled body – minus District 4 Councilman Bob Caldwell, who sent his regrets – got started, they blew through the four resolutions on the table and got to the scheduled public comment period about fifteen minutes ahead of schedule. It was still plenty of time for nine concerned citizens to get up and speak, with most of us being conservative and Republican activists.

G.A. Harrison (formerly of Delmarva Dealings and Salisbury News) got things started with his assessment that the current school board “kowtows to the unions” and that opponents of change asked for a three-way question as a “red herring…a blatant political ploy.”

“Politics is already part of the mix” of the current system, he added. Score one for the good guys.

My remarks were second, and after me came fellow Central Committee member Dave Goslee, Sr.

After thanking the Council for maintaining the Lord’s Prayer and Pledge of Allegiance to begin the meeting, Goslee’s main point was to state “the parents do not have the say we should have.” He also spoke briefly about proposed budget cuts like a four day school week being proposed. (More on that later, well after the jump.)

Dr. Greg Belcher, another activist, spoke briefly in agreement with the three previous speakers.

Another GOP Central Committee member, Ann Suthowski, considered herself qualified to speak because she had been a teacher in Delaware schools for over thirty years under elected school boards. She claimed the rapport between the school board, teachers, and parents was “far superior” to that she experienced here as a parent.

Suthowski also recounted a 1957 incident she called “McKeldin’s Midnight Ride” where two members of the school board were ousted in order to select Royd Mahaffey as superintendent.

Julie Brewington (Right Coast Conservaive) chimed in to say that an elected school board would be a “positive step” but not a “magic pill.”

The lone voice in favor of the status quo came from Wicomico County NAACP head Mary Ashanti, who recounted that last session’s House and Senate bills were amended to present three options to voters: an appointed board as currently constituted, an elected board, or a hybrid board split five elected to two appointed.

But Republican Central Committee member Joe Collins mentioned that anyone can be elected to an elected school board – no one had to “whisper in the governor’s ear” to be selected. “We are not smarter than the voters,” he continued. “Local control is what your County Council is after.”

It’s worth noting that Collins once supported a hybrid idea but backed away after seeing the problems it could create. He did note that sometimes there could be a situation where an appointment is necessary, such as if no one ran for election in a particular district. But at least appointments there would be a local matter.

Delegate Mike McDermott was one of the two Delegates in attendance (the other being Delegate Charles Otto) and he announced “I came here tonight to thank you for your due diligence” in holding the hearings.

Since I believe McDermott favors the idea my count was eight for and one against. But from reports I heard the letters were coming in more against the change, which suggests the opposition has the jump on us there.

There were other comments made on a number of subjects at the County Council meeting after the school board hearing. G.A. Harrison wanted to reiterate that race had nothing to do with his disagreement with District 1 Council member Sheree Sample-Hughes, but partisan politics did.

Councilman Bob Culver pointed out the budget adjustment meeting and thanked the Benedict family for its decades in the floral business. Their store is closing after over a century as the current co-owners are retiring.

Sheree Sample-Hughes spoke about work commencing soon on the Connelly Mill Road railroad crossing and noted her District 1 was “well-represented” at the Johnson-Goslee “Extreme Makeover” home.

Council President Gail Bartkovich echoed Sample-Hughes’ sentiments, thanking the county employees who volunteered for duty there and saying it was “a house I would be happy to live in.”

Once that portion of the County Council meeting was finished and I renewed acquaintances with some folks I hadn’t seen in a spell, I headed over to Parkside High School to see what I could see about the budget meeting.

Thanks to band practice and a full house in the auditorium, I had to circle the parking lot for a few minutes to find a spot. While I didn’t stay very long because of another personal commitment, I gathered the following from the time I was there:

  • Wicomico County Schools claim their county appropriation is at the same level as it was in 1999, but is a smaller percentage of the overall budget
  • Their revenues are expected to remain in the $154 million range, but expenses are pegged to be $163 million by FY2015
  • “The primary reason we’re here is to talk about our structural deficits.”
  • Insurance is a “primary driver” of increased costs
  • A $3.3 million annual grant from the stimulus expires September 30, 2012. Don’t you love getting hooked on federal money?

Dr. John Fredericksen, Wicomico County Superintendent of Schools, noted that the slow economic growth over the last few years had led to a number of “permanent” actions by the school board in previous years. But this time they were starting the discussion extra early (the budget isn’t adopted until July 2012) because “we want your values.” He promised to have all budget items evaluated based on the students served, but provided a gloomy picture of cuts that included terminating extracurricular activities, increasing class sizes, closing schools, and perhaps a four day week.

It’s interesting to note the approach. Knowing that the crowd is primarily students and parents, school boards always lead their scare tactics with the prospect of eliminating sports – the primary extracurricular activity. Kids don’t really care about increased class sizes, and although they may care about closing a school, they probably think a four-day week means – of course – three-day weekends. What kid could be against that?

Obviously I didn’t sit through the whole meeting, so perhaps this subject was broached. But I’m really curious how much money is spend on state and federal mandates. Since the county’s budget is only around $110 million and perhaps half of it goes to the schools, there’s around $100 million in state and federal money that the schools rely on to educate the kids (or perhaps, depending on your perspective, babysit them for about seven hours a day.) With that $100 million comes about 100 million strings attached.

Part of the problem has to be addressed at the higher levels of government in throwing out those mandates which force schools to spend money in counterproductive ways. Somehow private schools educate children at a far smaller per-pupil cost than public schools do, so the key is to find out why and emulate it as much as possible despite the objections of the teachers’ unions, which were probably well-represented at the meeting too.

Having dealt with both public and private schools in my days, education is truly what you make of it – after all, I was a public school and university student and I figure I turned out none the worse for wear. But we all make an investment in our schools whether we like it or not, so our demand is that we get well-educated students in return. We all need to put our thinking caps on and figure out how we can improve the schools on the same amount of money we give them now, because too many of us are tapped out and can’t spare anymore cash like the school board wants.

They will have to learn to keep living with less.

Author: Michael

It's me from my laptop computer.