Montgomery County School Superintendent Jerry D. Weast hoped the $1.2 billion budget he presented this week would answer criticism that his sweeping plans to change the school system focused only on students in need.
He saw the proposal as a response to weeks of grumbling over his plan to close the academic achievement gap between racial and ethnic groups while raising standards for all.
"That's why we put the balanced approach in the budget," Weast said. "We've tried to address both sides of the equation. We've got to increase rigor, too. Nobody wants to lower the standards. That hurts all children."
After releasing his "Call for Action" plan last month, Weast heard discontent from focus groups made up of small numbers of residents. In one, he conceded that his plan's first draft did focus too much on children in need. Other school officials also fielded complaints.
"I was very concerned that all the focus was on closing the gap," said school board member Mona M. Signer (Rockville-Potomac), who said she was fielding a number of calls from parents and community leaders upset with Weast's plan.
And if Weast doesn't do more to raise standards?
"The danger if you don't is, bright students will languish. The children who are average will languish, and we will see bright flight from the school system," Signer said. "If parents believe we don't want to challenge all our students, they will believe this system is not for them and their families. Then we become a system that only has children in need."
John Hoven, president of the county's Gifted and Talented Association, said: "It's fine that they're concerned about closing the gap for low-achievers. But we've had a decade of indifference and neglect of gifted students. And the 'Call to Action' continued that."
Weast countered that the message that he wanted to make education better for all groups "wasn't coming through." In the budget he presented Wednesday night at Wheaton High School, he made very sure an entire page was devoted to showing just what programs were meant for whom.
To close the gap, he included programs for remedial reading and summer algebra. But he added specifics on what he will do for average and above-average students, like the high-level William and Mary enriched reading program and a pilot program that uses the rigorous Singapore math curriculum. Right in the center of the page, he made clear that most of the $30 million in new programs, such as intensive teacher training, are meant to advance both goals: closing the gap and raising standards generally.
And still, that may not be enough.
Susan Sellers, vice president of the Montgomery County Council of Parent Teacher Associations, who was part of a small community meeting with Weast, said that balance still isn't clear in Weast's budget.
"If you focus on just one area of concern, then others suffer," Sellers said. "Then parents are faced with the difficult decision of putting their children in another school system or a private school."
Wayne Gruner, a Bethesda resident whose three children have long since graduated from Montgomery schools but still takes a strong interest in education, was harsh in his assessment. "You can't afford to use your future creators as stretcher bearers for the future dead weight," he said.
Such sentiments are not new to Montgomery County. It was the same focus on needy children and the ensuing backlash that doomed then-Superintendent Paul L. Vance's "Success for Every Student" plan. Although the county puts out a thick book every year measuring whether schools are meeting goals such as lowering suspension rates and putting more African American and Hispanic students into honors courses, many in the community never fully supported it.
"The first iteration of [Success for Every Student] did speak exclusively to minority and under-achieving students. And many parents of highly able students read that as a sign that this school system was not interested in meeting the needs of their children," Signer said. "I was anxious that we avoid that same mistake. The first version of the 'Call to Action' did not. The changes that have been made since then do address those concerns."
CAPTION: Superintendent Jerry D. Weast responded to weeks of criticism.