A Good Judge

I recently served on a jury in the courtroom of Judge James J. Lombardi. My experience there confirmed what Judge Lombardi said about most jurors enjoying their service. But I must add that an important factor in making the experience a positive one was the judge himself and his attitude of caring and respect toward us jurors. The sentiments expressed in his Forum letter [Prince George's Extra, July 21] are lived out daily in his courtroom.

Every consideration was given to make our service pleasant and enjoyable. We were always treated with great dignity and respect. The case was moved along expeditiously to prevent us having to spend extra days in court. The judge came and spoke to us at the case's conclusion, personally expressing his appreciation for our service, acknowledging the importance of our role in the justice system and soliciting feedback about how things could be made better. I even received a note in the mail some time later, again expressing the judge's appreciation.

If all judges were to treat their jurors in this manner, I think jury service would lose some of its reputation as an unpleasant, if necessary, obligation of citizenship. I would gladly serve in Judge Lombardi's courtroom any time.

-- Mark W. Hayes


Plea for Privatization

The recent debate about the Washington Suburban Sanitary Commission privatization study cast a biased and parochial point of view about the efforts to date. . . . Furthermore, the most important fact of this whole issue is being completely ignored. That fact is that we have a unique opportunity before us to gain enormous benefits to customers . . . by selling the assets of the WSSC and creating a private, regulated utility.

* Privatization is about opportunity--a major financial opportunity--to support our schools, teachers, public safety and neighborhood revitalization! And, it's about time that customers--residents and business owners in both Prince George's and Montgomery counties--begin to be paid back for the years of footing the bill of development, paying off the interest of $3 billion debt and a $64 million palace tower on I-95. It's also time to support our elected officials to change the state law so that this out-of-control agency lets go of the purse strings, and that the counties obtain the money needed for building schools, hiring qualified teachers and more public safety programs. The real facts about opportunities gained from privatizing the WSSC are plain and simple.

* Privatization gives Prince George's and Montgomery counties additional annual revenue.

The WSSC, as a government agency, does not pay taxes on the buildings, facilities and vacant properties that it owns, or on the revenue that it generates. A private company does. Each county could anticipate receiving each year as much as, if not more than, $20 million from property taxes alone. In addition, the taxes gained from revenue generated selling water and other services to other jurisdictions are comparable.

* Privatization gives each county a major cash infusion for their immediate needs--as much as $1 billion to $2 billion.

Selling WSSC's assets--the land, its buildings and operations--gives the two counties additional financial resources that are vitally needed to invest in rebuilding school systems and neighborhoods, training people for jobs in the 21st century, obtaining quality teachers and enhancing public safety programs. Just think of what benefits to our children these assets could achieve.

* Privatization keeps customers' water and sewer rates under control.

Employee salaries represent a significant portion of money that is used from fees collected from water and sewer rates. However, within the WSSC, there exists a high number of employees who are protected under an obscure state employee law that allows them to obtain a 10 percent increase in their salary every year.

WSSC currently has lower-level managers who are making close to $200,000--including benefits. This type of scenario does not occur in a private company. Research shows that the good, technically sound and competent employees benefit from the change from a public to private utility. Because bureaucratic organizations protect the incompetent employee through archaic policies and procedures, they become ineffective and overstaffed. As a result, we as customers end up paying costly salaries (through our utility bills) for individuals who are not needed or doing work they are supposed to do.

* Privatization through an asset sale is the best financial opportunity we have to invest in our children's future.

It's time that the people--customers in Prince George's and Montgomery counties--speak out for what is deserved to them--an opportunity to benefit financially from a costly monstrosity. It's time that customers in Prince George's and Montgomery counties let elected officials know they want a change. They want the WSSC to become a private, regulated utility, and they want to use the financial benefits to create better schools for our children.

-- Clayton Duhaney


The Prince George's Extra welcomes Letters to the Editor. Fax to 301-952-1397, e-mail to pgextra@washpost.com or write to Letters to the Editor, Prince George's Extra, The Washington Post, 14402 Old Mill Rd., Suite 201, Upper Marlboro, Md. 20772. Please include your full address and a daytime phone number. Letters may be edited.


What County Schools Need to Thrive

Amy Argetsinger's May 16 Washington Post article "Beating Poverty in the Classroom: Some Schools See Ways to Do Well on Md. Tests" raised the important question: Why are some schools in poor areas more effective than others? What makes some of even the poorest schools thrive relative to other poor schools? Principals cited teamwork, coordination, parental involvement and a can-do attitude as the factors for the relative success of their schools. I find these things useful, but not enough. In sharp contrast, here is my list of basics needed for poor (and rich) schools to thrive:

* Competent principals with viable pedagogical philosophies. Anthony Alvarado is superintendent of one of New York City's 32 school districts. His removal of incompetent principals and teachers was a major reason for his district's student test scores moving from 11th to second place.

Hyattsville Middle School went from a well thought of school to the dysfunctional one described in Doug Spicher's letter in the Prince George's Extra [May 5] the year the principal changed. (It has another one now.)

* Knowledgeable teachers. Principals need to ascertain that a teacher is knowledgeable in the content of a subject before making class assignments. Glassmanor Elementary School (a 21st Century School) went from last place (as measured by the Maryland functional test scores) among the seven elementary schools in the Oxon Hill cluster to second place during 1998. Most likely major contributory reason for such improvement: Last summer, the principal hired many qualified teachers.

* Effective teaching methods. Patricia F. Campbell, professor of math education at the University of Maryland at College Park, provided training in effective methods for teaching mathematics to the teachers at three of the four poor Montgomery County elementary schools cited in the May 16 Post article as doing exceptionally well.

She organized Project IMPACT at Broad Acres, Harmony Hills and Rolling Terrace elementary schools.

* Knowledgeable heads of departments. The head of a middle school math department should be fluent in middle school math; in the Prince George's public school system, many are not. My standards are higher; I want poor schools to educate students as well as rich ones, not merely better than other poor ones.

. . . Vice chairman of the Prince George's school board, Doyle Niemann's (Mount Rainier) statement as quoted in the May 16 Post article was: "We have students who come to school who are homeless, who don't know where their parents are, whose parents are in jail, who are surrounded by drug dealing and violence, and we expect them to devote their attention to learning how to read."

Poor students are not necessarily worse pupils, but because of the obstacles they must hurdle, their teachers carry a greater burden than teachers in more affluent schools, the vice chairman said. "Some might say they would have to do a miraculous job to obtain the same kind of results an average teacher might get with a more privileged group."

Similarly, last year, Chairman Alvin Thornton (Suitland) said: "I think if you ask the school board to improve schools, you should ask the state and county government to improve the census tracts surrounding the schools. The teenage pregnancy rate should go down. The incarceration rate should go down. The family separation rate should go down. The income levels of the households should go up. We need a culture of accountability among the parents. We don't have it."

Incredibly, the school board chairman and vice chairman assume no responsibility for the lack of learning at poor schools, they assign none to the Prince George's school system, none to the principals. Mostly, they both blame the victims' social-economic status.

By not putting any blame on the educational program, the Prince George's school board chairman and vice chairman get the school board completely off the hook. There is no reason for the board to write new policies or directives that would order improvements in the educational program such as passing a policy that requires the head of a middle school math department be knowledgeable in middle school math.

In Texas, 50 schools, heavily affected by poverty, thrived so well, they actually excelled by doing better than most schools in good neighborhoods on the Texas Assessment of Academic Skills 1995 reading and mathematics tests. Those 50 excellent schools all received Title I funds and had more than 60 percent of their students receiving free or reduced-price lunches. Most had more than 75 percent. A study by the Charles A. Dana Center at the University of Texas at Austin concluded that collectively, these "schools suggest that there are good practices that would enable any high-poverty school to create an environment in which almost all students achieve high levels of academic success." The Chicago school system's chief executive, Paul G. Vallas, said [The Washington Post, June 27, 1997]: "We have top performing schools in very tough inner-city neighborhoods. We always talk about racism in this country. There is nothing more racist than having low expectations for inner-city children, for not demanding the same high standards that we do for suburban students."

-- Jerome Dancis

Dancis teaches mathematics at the University of Maryland at College Park.