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The Tentacle


April 21, 2003

The Sky Is Falling! The Sky Is Falling! Itís About Damn Time!

John W. Ashbury

The superintendent of Frederick County Public Schools sounds an awful lot like Chicken Little in his pronouncement last week that budget projections may force a hiring freeze and staff reductions.

Itís about time that the overbloated bureaucracy known as our school system became aware that money is tight and that a highly critical look at just where all the money it receives is necessary.

Our school system has more than 4,600 full-time employees who receive benefits, like medical insurance, vacation and sick days. There are also nearly 2,700 employees, like substitute teachers, who do not receive benefits.

Dr. Jack Dale, the superintendent, says unless the county comes up with more than the expected increase from the county commissioners of just under $4 million, he will be forced to reduce the FCPS staff by about 150 people. (He didnít mention the fact that the state underfunds Frederick County.)

Just think about that for a minute. FCPS has 7,300 employees. Now, if we reduce that by 150, we still have 7,150 drawing a pay check from Frederick County taxpayers. Thatís only a reduction of 2 percent in the number of employees. Any business that canít get along with that small a cutback would be in trouble. But this business of educating children is tapped into a bottomless money pit called "the taxpayers."

If this drain continues, without improved results, sometime in the future there will be a taxpayersí revolt. The unfortunate thing is that the criminals who waste our money in the name of our childrenís education will never go to jail because there is always a justification that sounds reasonable - until you really get into the nitty-gritty details.

Dr. Dale also says his school system may not have the funds to open Tuscarora High School because the Board of Education wonít be able to allocate the start-up costs this year.

So, the county commissioners and the state have spent $45 million to construct this state-of-the-art facility, and we are going to hold a club over the county commissionersí heads unless they give FCPS another $1.2 million for this?

Already the Board of Education has bought into the idea of opening Tuscarora on a delay basis, sending only freshmen and sophomores there this fall, juniors the next year, and, finally, two years from now, this building will have full occupancy.

But the BOE isnít to blame totally for this asinine decision. Parents clamored to keep their precious little ones with their friends. While it might have been appropriate to allow rising seniors to stay in the schools they have attended for three years, it doesnít make fiscal sense to do what the BOE has done.

They did the same thing when Urbana High opened in the mid 90s. It was even worse then because it took three years to reach capacity, and immediately the parents started hollering that the school was overcrowded. Already there are plans afoot to add an addition there - and thatís before FCPS renovates Linganore High, which is in deplorable condition - and has been for years.

Dr. Dale also says that class size will have to increase if FCPS doesnít get the money it is seeking. Whatís so bad about that? Have you ever looked at how FCPS arrived at a 1-to-23 ratio. Consider that librarians and guidance counselors are thrown into the mix as "teachers." And donít forget that many special education teachers in the main-stream schools have less than six students each. Sort of helps to reduce the student-teacher ratio when you add in these facts.

If you donít believe these statistics, just ask your child how many other children are in each of their classes. Bet they are all over that the announced ratio!

The county commissioners are in a terrible financial situation this year. They expect to have about $20 million in new revenues. But the state has already cut its funding to the county by $4.5 million in highway maintenance money. And debt service, the money the commissioners pay out each year to retire bonds sold to build county projects - mostly schools, increases by nearly $5 million next year.

And, if recent reports out of Annapolis are correct, the commissioners may well face additional cuts in state revenues after Governor Robert Ehrlich vetoes the tax increases passed by the General Assembly.

The federal government has put in all sorts of new requirement for homeland security. The "No Child Left Behind" legislation also places an undue burden on local government without providing any increase in funding.

The state gets into this unfunded mandate activity as well by requiring all day kindergarten without the extra money needed by Frederick County to increase seating capacity in our elementary schools by more than 1,200 places.

But what Dr. Dale and his staff are doing is very nearly unconscionable. He is trying to agitate activist parents to put pressure on the commissioners to fully fund the FCPS request for an additional $15 million.

Hear this, dear readers, it isnít going to happen. There are not three votes on this Board of County Commissioners to raise the property tax. And there isnít enough money left to provide the necessities required by all the other departments. They must consider public safety on nearly an equal basis as the school system since 9/11.

Maybe it is a good thing that Dr. Dale and his staff are pushing so hard this year for additional funding. Next year, when the same cry goes up, we may well turn a deaf ear. It will be like that annoying song we hear on the radio so often that we simply switch stations to avoid listening.

Certainly there are good arguments for the increased spending for public education. But, until we see greatly improved results, FCPS doesnít deserve to be treated differently that the other agencies the commissioners must fund.

There are serious things wrong in a school system where 65 percent of the children in middle and high school are on the honor roll. And this was even before the BOE eliminated the "D" grade.

(An aside here, if you donít mind. Since the "D" grade was cut from our grading system, the number of children failing has dropped. Seems that some students got the message and worked a little harder to get their grades up to a "C.")

The State Of Maryland will likely be in worse financial shape next year. The "structural deficit" that everyone talked about during the 90-day session, was not addressed. It will have to be next year.

Perhaps FCPS should apply for a gaming license to place slot machines in every school. We wouldnít have to build facilities to house them because they are already there. And, while they would be turned off during the school day, they would attract crowds from across the region every night and all day, every day for the two-month summer vacation.

And all the profit would go to educating Frederick County children without the BOE, the FCPS staff, and the county commissioners having to go to Annapolis for the annual "beg-a-thon," which never seems to help Frederick County get the money it needs from state coffers.



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