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The Tentacle


September 8, 2006

Better The Devil You Don't Know.

John W. Ashbury

By this time next week we will know which three candidates for the four open seats on the Frederick County Board of Education have been eliminated in the primary. Sadly, none of the incumbents are likely to be among them.

Over the years it has become increasingly - and painfully - obvious that while they talk a good game of "we do it for the children," they don't always. It's more for the staff and parents than anyone else.

The incumbents - Bonnie Borsa, Michael Schaden, Daryl Boffman and Jean Smith - have kowtowed to the wishes of the superintendent more and more frequently, especially since Linda Burgee took over for the departed Jack Dale.

The issue that most rankles is the construction of a "Taj Mahal" for Frederick County Public Schools (FCPS) administrative staff on a prime piece of Carroll Creek property. To pay for it, the school board has approved a plan to use operating funds that are supposed to go to the education of the children.

Oh, they all say that it will come from the savings that will be realized from the reduction in trips between the current Hayward Road complex and the downtown headquarters. Hogwash! There is no way that a $750,000 savings will be realized each year just by putting all the administrators in the same building.

While the costs estimates have been reduced, along with the size of the building, the school board never talks about the $8 to $10 million cost of a parking deck to accommodate these government employees. That cost will be borne by taxpayers outside the FCPS budget.

And who can forget that the county already owns land at Hayward Road, within the FCPS complex, on which this new headquarters building can be constructed; or that the value placed on the properties to be sold to offset the cost of the new building are inflated in the current real estate market - an effort to fool the public about the total expense of this project.

The fiscal irresponsibility of the current Board of Education is further demonstrated through the construction plans for all the new schools. Sure, the "extras" look nice, and reduce maintenance in some cases. But is the extra cost really worth it? Will we be closing these schools - because they are no longer needed - long before their useful life is expended? (See Montgomery County's record.)

Do all the do-dads enhance the educational experience for the children? Or do they just enhance the enjoyment of the staff - being in aesthetically pleasing surroundings?

Other jurisdictions are building schools with the same square footage, meeting the same state requirement, for millions less than we are. Why can't we do the same thing?

In the past few months the cost of building Oakdale High School has risen from $58 million to $73 million. Why? One reason might be the damage Hurricane Katrina did along the Gulf Coast. Another - more cynical - explanation could be that contractors are hiking their prices to make up for the slowdown in the local housing market.

On the other hand, the county commissioners, to their credit, have built three seats for every new student enrolling in FCPS over the past four years. We now have more permanent seats than we have students.

However, the first complaint we hear from parents deals with "all the portables." One county commissioner candidate - Ed Lulie - cited these classrooms trailers at Tuscarora High as convincing him that growth has to be slowed - if not halted altogether.

But, why are there portables at Tuscarora? Could it have something to do with the fact that students, who live in the West South and South Jefferson street area - just two long blocks from an under-capacity Frederick High School - are bused to Tuscarora? Duh!

The current school board purposefully avoids one of its most critical jobs. That is using the space available through redistricting and not continuing to raid taxpayers' pocketbooks to build what will rapidly become excess facilities.

Besides the deplorable situation between Frederick High and Tuscarora, there is another redistricting fiasco not far away. Governor Thomas Johnson Middle School is operating at 67 percent capacity. Students in adjacent draw areas for Oakdale and New Market Middle Schools have capacity figures of 97% and 96% respectively. West Frederick is at 89% capacity. These figures are based on enrollment for the last school year.

Three middle schools in the county were over capacity last year - Windsor Knolls (123%), Middletown Middle (103%) and Brunswick Middle (104%). The opening of Urbana Middle and an addition in Brunswick addressed two of the three. Middletown and West Frederick are adjacent districts, so adjustments could be made through redistricting. But no, it would upset too many parents, so the school board won't address the problem.

When all is said and done, how can anyone defend the performance of the Frederick County Board of Education, four members of which are asking voters to return them to office, in allowing Lincoln Elementary to be listed as a failing school for the fifth consecutive year? There can be no excuse for this failure.

The entire staff at the school should have been reassigned, replaced by the best teachers and administrators in the school system. And there should have been extensive community outreach programs initiated to get reluctant parents involved.

All the school board members up for re-election should be replaced. They have failed miserably to demonstrate fiscal responsibility - showing instead a tendency to abuse the taxpayers of this county, to say nothing of their failure to adequately address the needs of our most at-risk children.



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