Some of the teachers are wearing red arm bands and threatening to strike. Parents are upset over plans to redraw attendance areas. And the superintendent is retiring. Otherwise, county residents say it's business as usual in the Charles County schools.
"Teachers are more upset than at any time in the last 10 years," said Charles Smith, president of the Education Association of Charles County.
The teachers are bitter over a wage dispute with the county board of education that has erupted despite a negotiated salary agreement. As a result, more than 500 of the county's 1,700 teachers are wearing red arm bands to show their displeasure with the board of education's 8 percent pay raise offer. The teachers want 9 percent, and that is 3.7 percent below their original demand.
Nancy Sefton, vice chairman of the school board, said the board opted for an 8 percent proposal instead of the 9 percent raise recommended by an arbitrator because of a need to finance repairs on deteriorating facilities. "We're (the school board) asking the county commissioners for the money we think we can get," she said.
In response, Smith said teachers may refuse to sign the school board's contract offer, holding out the possibility of a strike, an illegal practice for public employes in Maryland, except in Prince George's County. "I would hope we would get this settled short of that."
What has parents up in arms, however, is what school spokesman C. Ashley Smith calls the "emotional" issue of "school rezoning."
The outgoing superintendent of 12 years, Jesse L. Starkey, recently asked the board to alter school attendance lines to cope with a shifting student population of 17,000. Starkey's plan is unpopular with the school system's Citizen Advisory Council, said Sefton. And Starkey isn't sure what the school board will think of it.
He will find out March 29, when a public hearing at La Plata High School focuses on the redistricting plan.
Smith blames the county's school boundary problems on the rapid growth in Charles County's northern end, particularly around Waldorf and the planned community of St. Charles. "The reason for the trouble is they (St. Charles) built so damn many houses. The growth has killed us,"said C. Ashley Smith.
Two Waldorf schools, Dr. Samuel A. Mudd Elementary and Thomas Stone High School, have the most severe overcrowding problems. By next year, Starkey predicts, Stone will exceed its capacity of 1,249 by nearly 600 students. And Dr. Mudd expects to have 126 pupils more than its 545 capacity.
Starkey said all high school students now enrolled will graduate from the schools they now attend. But adjustments are necessary by next year in the county's six middle schools (grades six, seven and eight) and 17 elementary schools (kindergarten through fifth grade).
In spite of the controversy, Starkey said he is not being chased out of his job. It was his choice to retire, he said. "I've been through three contracts. All this is going on and I'm 59 years old. What would you do?"
Sefton, asked about the circumstances of Starkey's retirement, said, "I don't want to comment on that."