Dear Homeroom:

Would you please provide a profile of the members of the school board which includes: number of years served, who they represent, areas of interest for them. Also it would be helpful to know the structure of the board.

Barbara Shulman

Silver Spring

I'm glad you asked. I can't tell you how many people I've run into in Montgomery County who don't know the first thing about the school board. Even those who know the most intimate intricacies of the federal governmental process will look blank if they start talking about the institution where they send their children every day and ask, "Do we have an elected school board or an appointed one?" So here's a very short primer.

First of all, the point of the school board is to make sure the school system is held accountable to the general public. It is the equivalent of electing a civilian president to be commander in chief of the military. Its job is to make sure the professionals don't get carried away with themselves.

As such, the school board has a few clearly defined duties. The first, and arguably most important, is to hire a superintendent. The next is to set general educational policies and then hold the superintendent responsible for implementing them. In Montgomery County, the board also approves the hiring of principals and top staff members, determines school boundaries and acts as a quasi-judicial appellate body for appeals from students and staff members. And, finally, the school board approves two budgets, an operating budget and a capital, or construction, budget--which is another way of setting educational policy.

Montgomery County elects its school board with a peculiar system that dates back many years, to when the county was run by the cronies at the county courthouse who wanted to keep power among themselves. They made it so that all school board members had to run countywide, which discouraged upstarts without money or countywide recognition.

To mitigate this somewhat, the county charter was changed in the 1980s to require that at least five of the seven board members live in separate districts. So now all the board members no longer live in Rockville and Bethesda. But by requiring candidates to continue running countywide, competing for the attention of 441,212 registered voters (although only about 275,000 actually voted in school board elections last time), this system still discourages newcomers. The County Council had the same system until it went to a true district system, so that now five members are elected from districts and four at large. This difference between the County Council and school board confuses a lot of voters.

To make things just a bit more bewildering, the County Council districts and the county school board districts are not the same.

Those districts will be redrawn by the state legislature after the 2000 Census, and if you would like to see some rationalization of the process, you might want to mention that to your state legislator, who runs from a different district altogether.

Every two years, voters elect either three or four grown-ups to the school board so that the seven adult members' four-year terms are staggered; every year, middle and high school students elect a student member to the board. The student member has a vote like everyone else, except on personnel issues and litigation.

The school board has no way to raise money. There is no "school tax" in Montgomery County. Every year the school board goes, hat in hand, to the County Council to ask that its budget be funded. And the County Council harrumphs and tells the school board that it's being unreasonable, and gives the school board less money than it asks for.

Even in the last couple of years, when the council has been more supportive of schools, it still has exerted its authority by cutting at least two or three million dollars from the roughly billion-dollar school budget. This system is very convenient for everyone, because the school board can blame the County Council when things aren't right, but the council still gets to blame the school board. In any case, if you are interested in school policy, you need to think not only about the school board but also about the County Council. And don't forget the county executive, who gets a say over a lot of budget matters, which blurs the lines of accountability even more.

None of that is what you asked, though, about the school board members themselves, their interests, committees, when they meet and how to reach them. But this is what you should do. Call the Department of Information at 301-279-3391 and ask them to send you a little booklet called, "Meet your Elected School Officials." It is very informative and helpful. Or, to get the same information, go to www.mcps.k12.md.us and click on the Board of Education.

More on May 10th

Dear Homeroom:

As a teacher in the county, I wish to add to what you had to say about the high absentee rate on May 10th. Many teachers felt demoralized by the decision that the state made to postpone the MSPAP (Maryland School Performance Assessment Program) test. State Superintendent Nancy S. Grasmick certainly sent a message that was loud and clear to the parents, making the decision to keep students home a lot easier.

Teachers did their best to continue with instruction. But teachers then also are responsible for ensuring that students make up the work, which may also require teacher instruction. It is a no-win situation for the teacher.

Marcie Leibowitz

Olney

Let's acknowledge that this was a tough situation all around. Take the state decision to delay testing. The way the state's MSPAP tests are set up, schools post a zero for each student who is absent. The reason for this is to guard against principals manipulating their schools' scores by encouraging some of their poorer-performing students to stay home on testing days.

But in a case like May 10, when from everything anyone could tell there would be widespread absenteeism, particularly in Montgomery County, some schools would have been really badly hurt when their report cards came out in the fall, meaning that we wouldn't have a real picture of what kind of job they are doing.

On the other hand, the very fact of delaying the test probably encouraged some parents to keep their children home. Grasmick's spokesman, Ron Peiffer, said that he thought the decision to delay testing "was one of the hardest decisions I ever saw her make" but that a lot of principals thanked her.

As to the issue of how Montgomery County handled May 10, the county's associate superintendent, Steven Seleznow, said that school officials were trying for a balance. "We didn't ask for the media publicity. But we also didn't want to be secretive." Here again, they were caught in a difficult situation, with rumors flying through schools faster than a cell phone sends a message and with constant calls from panicked parents asking what the schools were doing to make sure schools were safe. Eventually, Superintendent Paul L. Vance sent a letter home with students, which may have calmed some fears but no doubt whipped other people into a frenzy.

Quite honestly, Littleton, Colo., more than any other school incident, has completely thrown school officials off balance, and they are grappling with how to meet current and future threats in its wake. They're bound to stumble a few times before getting it right.

Homeroom is a forum for you. Send questions, opinion and issues you would like to see discussed to Homeroom, The Washington Post, 51 Monroe St. Suite 500, Rockville, Md. 20850. The fax number is 301-279-5665. Or you can e-mail homeroom@washpost.com.