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The Tentacle


May 28, 2003

FCPS Can Fund The Must Haves, Cut The Wants

John W. Ashbury

With any luck, by the time you click on The Tentacle tomorrow morning, there will be a new budget in place for Frederick County Public Schools. It has been a difficult, time consuming, and frustrating exercise for all involved.

The county commissioners may have mortgaged next year's budget by dipping further into the capital gains tax windfall that came their way earlier this Spring. They had already placed $4 million of that $16 million into one-time FCPS expenses. Now they have taken another $2+ million and applied it to FCPS to ostensibly fund a step increase for school staff - including teachers, support workers and administrators.

There can be little doubt that most of our teachers are paid less than they are worth. But those few who are paid far more than their work would command are spoiling the barrel for the rest.

Perhaps the fact that after only two years on the job, teachers are guaranteed a position for the rest of their careers, presenting a public relations nightmare for them. Or perhaps it is the fact that teachers, no matter their level on the pay scale, get a guaranteed step pay raise each and every year from the day they start until the day they are eligible for retirement.

Of course, there are exceptions, like those who face discipline for violating their contract. But if a teacher shows up for work every day and stands before a classroom full of children, they get a raise the next year, even if not a single child learns a single thing during an entire school year.

But for the vast majority of these dedicated professionals, teaching is a calling and commands their devotion. Most of them put in a 2000-hour work year during the 10 months they report to work. That's 50 weeks a year at 40 hours per.

But the activists who are constantly clamoring for higher wages give the critics of such tactics the fodder to stir up the public against the whole bunch of them. When the Board of Education increases the starting teacher salary by a single dollar, every teacher all the way up the scale gets a $1 pay raise, plus an additional sum for years of service. Perhaps that is as it should be. But the cost to the taxpayers gets enormous when you consider there are more than 4,600 of them currently on the FCPS payroll. (Have you ever heard a 'Thank You' for this largess?)

If you listen to the teachers' union, headed by Nancy Dietz, you would think teachers are the most underpaid professional in the county. That is hardly true. Yes, the starting salary for teachers, at $32,000, ranks about 20th in the state. But when you get up to the Master's Degree scale and the Master's Degree plus 30 hours and 25 years of service, the pay scale ranks 8th in the state. That's better than where the county ranks in per student wealth.

You must also remember that getting a Master's Degree is a requirement to remain a certified teacher in Maryland. It isn't like the old days when, once you graduated from college, you could be a teacher for life and never set foot in a college classroom again.

More than 80 percent of the FCPS budget for next year will go to salaries and benefits. That little fact makes it difficult for the Board of Education to make cuts from the remaining 20 percent to meet what it calls a shortfall. Some of that remaining money must go to continuing costs and the expected increases in those costs. Like oil and electricity prices. And don't forget gasoline and diesel fuel for buses.

By when you hear the cry that the education budget has been slashed by the commissioners, don't believe it for a moment. FCPS will have between $18 and $20 million more next year than they had this year. What is being cut is the increase in the budget for "enhancements" the BOE wants to include but won't have the money to do so.

If the BOE can fund its base budget for next year, which includes money for more students and funds for the opening expenses at Tuscarora High School and give step pay raises, then what is the problem deciding what to "NOT FUND?" Just pay for what you have to pay for, put the rest into one time expenses that are in the "enhancement budget," and get on with life.

This isn't rocket science, although with all the machinations associated with the process, it certainly seems to present far more difficult problems than NASA faces in its engineering and design departments.

We will see just how diligent the BOE members have been in listening to all the arguments for and against each and every proposal. But if you listen carefully to what each board member says in the televised session tonight (starting at 6 P. M. on Cable Channel 18), you will discover that they seldom say anything of substance or revealing about their real positions. Those comments have already been heard by their fellow board members in a "planning session," which isn't televised.

Good luck to each of you who has a special interest in public education and wants certain things funded. Most of you won't get what you want unless you can put a proper name to it - like Little Johnny and Pretty Mary. And don' forget the violins. They always help stir the emotions.



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