A citizens group set up by the Howard County Council to address complaints about school inequities has issued a report recommending changes in the way school boundaries are drawn, the way resources are distributed and the way teachers and administrators are recruited, evaluated and retained.
County Council members this week presented the report to the school board, along with a message that they're serious about making county schools equal.
"We do expect some response to what we have here," said County Council Chairman C. Vernon Gray (D-East Columbia). "I can't emphasize enough how strongly we feel about the recommendations we have here."
The recommendations came after Gray and other council members, responding to a public outcry about perceived inequity between older and newer county schools, convened three public meetings in the last several weeks to solicit opinion.
At those meetings, parents, teachers and students testified about disparities among schools in computers, textbooks, playground equipment and quality of teaching. Many said older schools, most of which are in Columbia, fall too far behind newer schools when it comes to such resources.
Participants at those meetings formed a committee and were asked by the council to examine the issues of redistricting, open enrollment and equity. Their report, the final version of which was given to the school board and Superintendent Michael E. Hickey at a meeting Monday, also addressed accountability and leadership within schools.
In the areas of redistricting and open enrollment, the group recommended drawing a "paper plan" of natural neighborhood boundaries for schools, to see how it would compare with existing school boundaries.
"If they want to do that, fine with me," said school board member Sandra H. French. "I'm open to that. It really is such a difficult issue."
The group also suggested taking into account socioeconomics when considering a school's makeup and said that the county's open-enrollment policy--which allows parents to send students to under-enrolled schools instead of the ones they are assigned--is discriminatory for those who can't afford to pay for transportation.
The goal is a simple one: that every child in the public school system receive the same education and have access to the same opportunities. To reach it, the group recommended identifying all schools that are below county minimum standards and developing a two-year plan to improve them. It advocated publicizing administrators' evaluations and raising educators' salaries.
And it suggested limiting the transfers of experienced teachers and administrators to new schools, something French said is not entirely possible.
"This business of limiting transfers, Dr. Hickey did start doing that four or five years ago, but what they don't understand is, it's an employees' rights issue," French said. "They have the right to apply for a transfer."
She agreed with some of the group's recommendations, such as having the school system, not parent groups, pay to replace playground equipment in older schools. But French said that after several years of operating with a budget deficit, the board wouldn't be able to address every need at once.
"We'll look at the ideas, but nothing is simple," she said. And although she appreciated the work of the committee, French said, "We really need dedicated individuals who want to go beyond a three-night meeting."
In an interview after the meeting, she said, "Our boardroom is empty meeting after meeting after meeting, and they go to the County Council to complain. There's a discrepancy there. I want people in the trenches with me."
Hickey, with County Executive James N. Robey (D), appointed a Leadership Committee on School Equity shortly after the council began its meetings on the issue. The committee has until March 1 to report its findings, after visiting schools, compiling data and interviewing parents, teachers, students and administrators. Hickey said he needed more time to study the recommendations made by the council's committee, but that generally, its work would help the Leadership Committee.
"I think that this report blends in well with the work of the other committee," he said. "I'm sure it'll make their task somewhat easier."
Council member Guy Guzzone (D-Southeast County), holding a copy of the county's scores on the Maryland School Performance Assessment Program--standardized tests in which Howard County recently fell from first to second in the state--said those results showed the school system needed some changes. "If this is reality, then we've got to figure out a new reality, because this ain't working," he said.