No New Taxes for Schools

The following is written in rebuttal to the Jan. 9 letter to the editor, "Education Is Top Priority," by Clare Whitbeck of Leonardtown.

St. Mary's County's FY 2001-2005 Capital Program totals $189 million. To support this program the county might have to borrow $131 million, but that would exceed both its affordability and legal limits on borrowing. They could borrow $95 million and stay within those limits. Projects for the renovation and expansion of the public schools account for $74 million of the overall total, of which the county's share is approximately $40 million. The county commissioners could give absolute first priority to fully funding the schools' projects out of the available $95 million, but many other public facilities projects would have to be postponed. For example, they probably could not proceed with the construction of FDR Boulevard for the benefit of local developers. That is their predicament.

However, there is a way for the county commissioners to have their cake and eat it, too. They could RAISE TAXES!!!

Clare Whitbeck is seeking public support for various tax increases that would supposedly ensure that the public schools' projects are funded and not delayed. She offers two arguments in support of her position.

The first argument is simply an emotional appeal that public school children should not be made to wait for upgraded facilities in which to have "the highest quality educational experience." Her argument entirely ignores the common sense reality that educational "quality" is primarily determined by the quality of the teachers and the curricula, not necessarily the physical facility. We need only consider the recognized quality of the educational experience at Little Flower School or Ryken High School, in comparison to the public schools, to understand that a school is much more than just a building.

Whitbeck notes that the St. Mary's school system is presently using 77 relocatable classrooms due to ongoing construction projects and/or over-crowding.

Her second argument is based upon a questionable elementary school study in one North Carolina county that conveniently claims that "placing students in temporary, mobile classrooms units had a very significant and negative impact on the performance of students." Therefore, Whitbeck would have us raise taxes in order to eliminate the use of relocatable classrooms. For some unexplainable reason it is supposedly not possible to have the highest quality educational experience in a relocatable classroom.

Frankly, I find Whitbeck's contrived arguments totally uncompelling as a reason to raise taxes. Clearly, the Impact Fee on new development should be significantly increased so that the cost of growth is more self-supporting. However, before taxpayers are required to pay even more money for the public schools, they are owed an honest explanation as to why their children are not already receiving the highest quality educational experience for the money presently being spent.

VERNON GRAY

California

Helping Students Achieve

Recently, the [Charles County] Board of Education's policy of requiring students to obtain a 1.75 GPA to participate in extracurricular activities (not just athletics) was discussed in another local paper's editorial and a letter to the editor by Al Smith in the Southern Maryland section of your paper on Jan. 9. I was actually present at the public school board meeting when this issue was discussed, and there has been a misunderstanding, if not a misrepresentation, of the discussion that took place there.

Contrary to what has been implied, no member of the Board of Education and no coaches or educators opposed raising the standard to a 2.0 GPA. In fact, virtually all of the teachers and school administrators represented by our organization support raising academic standards. The primary purpose of education is to provide each child with a true opportunity to learn, and while extracurricular activities can be a valuable part of that learning experience, academics should come first, no question.

That stated, however, it is unfair to suddenly raise the bar on some of our students without providing them with the resources and help they need to bring their GPAs up to a satisfactory level. Furthermore, some of the educators who testified pointed out that students would need to know about the new standards in time to meet them by the end of this year in order to be eligible for activities that start in August. The discussion at the board meeting was not about opposing higher standards; rather, it was about implementing higher standards in a fair manner, and this includes providing resources and assistance to help all students who are struggling--not just athletes--to achieve an acceptable GPA.

While at the board meeting, I listened to the comments made by the board members, including [Mary] Haff, whose remarks were misconstrued by William T. Whigham in a letter to this paper Jan. 9. Since this is an election year, it is not surprising that candidates' remarks will be misrepresented by their opponents, but the attack on Haff was not justified by her statements at the board meeting. In fact, Haff has always been an advocate for public schoolchildren, especially those who have learning disabilities or other special needs. When she said, "if this is all they can do," she did not mean "play sports," as Whigham says; rather, she was referring to students who may need special help and accommodations to achieve academic success. She was saying that these students should not be unceremoniously booted off the team or out of the club without being given a fair chance to succeed, given their abilities.

It has been proven that students who participate in extracurricular activities do better in school; such participation gives them a sense of pride in themselves and in their school and frequently keeps them out of trouble. All the board wants to do is have programs in place so that students who are not getting a 2.0 GPA can be given a chance to raise their grades before being cut off from extracurricular activities. We don't want to send the message to those students not making the grade that they are failures--instead, we should be working with them and helping them do better in school.

I applaud the board for wanting to raise the standards and for understanding that a support system needs to be in place to help those students who are struggling. As educators, we must care about all the students and help them reach the high standards we know they can.

BETH THORSEN

President, Education

Association of Charles County

Waldorf

Tragic End to Recycle Effort

This letter is to notify all of the tragic demise of a productive part of our small community: the Windy Hill Elementary Recycling Program. This important program was started the same year that this new elementary school opened in Owings. Its first year was wildly successful, raising close to $1,000 for the PTA while teaching our youngsters the importance of being environmentally responsible citizens.

We first started having problems last year when some petty criminal types began stealing bags of crushed aluminum cans from our collection bin at the school. (At this point I need to remind you that discarded cans are worth about a penny apiece!) Subsequent stakeouts by the local sheriff's deputies yielded nothing. After this, someone set fire to our newspaper collection bin. Most recently, in addition to more thefts, people (and I am using this term loosely, for their behaviors are more of an animal nature), have been dumping all manner of trash at the school rather than hauling it to the local drop-off sites.

If you drive the roads of Calvert County you become aware of the magnitude of the litter problem here. Individuals seem to think nothing of tossing their spent beer cans out of their car windows. (This of course points to another one of our local problems.) Even the local newspaper delivery person disposes of the thick yellow bands that hold the bundles of papers together in this manner. As I walk my dog around the perimeter of the small town of North Beach I can pick up two plastic grocery bags full of cans and plastic bottles, daily. Last winter I conducted a one-man, one-mile cleanup of Fifth Street, the road that leads into North Beach.

So, how can this situation be improved for the future? Perhaps stricter enforcement of the existing anti-litter laws by our law enforcement personnel? An anti-littering campaign in print for local publications or signage along our highways? How about teaching our children to be responsible for the environment that they will someday inherit? Well, that's what the Windy Hill Recycling Program was all about! Periodically, a Recycling Roundup would be held with special incentives and rewards for the kids who collected the most cans. This led to students scouring the streets of their community for recyclable materials thoughtlessly discarded by less responsible adults. They were cleaning up their community and learning there is true value in what unthinking individuals would casually toss aside, namely old cans and newspapers. Now that the low-lifes have brought an end to this program, what lessons do you think the children have been taught?

TIM R. BINTRIM

North Beach

Wetland Concerns Ignored

At the high levels of government, there is no limit to the rhetoric affirming a commitment to our environment. We hear that we must conserve and protect our natural resources from the ravages of development and that wetlands are among our most precious resources. In practice, the state's handling of projects like the proposal to cross Persimmon Creek wetlands seems counter to any commitment to our environment.

First, there was the poorly advertised July 19 public hearing where neither the applicant nor Maryland Department of the Environment (MDE) staff could answer questions about the project. In spite of promises to answer concerns raised by our citizens, MDE decided to approve the application without first addressing any of those outstanding issues. Citizen outrage forced a second hearing, which was offered only after Senator [Roy P.] Dyson and our [St. Mary's] Board of County Commissioners appealed directly to the secretary of MDE.

The second hearing, on Nov. 22, was much like the first. Many of the same questions asked at the first hearing were asked again, but there were still few answers provided by either the applicant's representatives or MDE staff. Again the MDE representatives promised to address all issues before making a decision on the application. The hearing officer claimed it would be a simple matter to research the files, pull the needed information and mail it out within two weeks of the hearing.

Just as the citizens had claimed, all the information required by the regulations was not in the MDE files. It took a few extra days for the applicant and MDE to finally put together some of the information requested at both hearings and in writing during the review process. Some of this critical information, such as the mandated cost analysis, was prepared subsequent to the last public hearing and was never evaluated as part of MDE's decision process.

It came as no surprise that the information provided by the applicant and MDE staff was incomplete, inaccurate, inconsistent and inadequate. After two public hearings and in spite of promises by MDE staff, the public hearing process has been a sham. MDE staff have abandoned their regulatory mandates and ignored obvious flaws in the application. They have allowed the applicant to circumvent the prescribed process and have ignored the public's concerns. Even issues raised by members of our own Board of County Commissioners have been ignored.

This isn't just about Parsimmon Hills--not anymore. This is about the regulators at MDE being allowed to ignore the regulations designed to conserve our wetlands and protect them from unwarranted exploitation. It's about MDE being allowed to ignore the valid concerns of our citizens and our elected officials while another well-connected influential developer gets richer.

It isn't supposed to work this way. The regulations are supposed to ensure that developers first avoid and then minimize adverse wetlands impacts. The regulations do not allow State officials to make up wetlands policies as they go along and they should be held accountable for their actions.

DORA ZIMMERMAN

President,

Community Preservation

Coalition of St. Mary's

Mechanicsville

Gratitude for Toy Drive

On behalf of the Tri-County Council for Southern Maryland, I am writing to express appreciation toward the vanpoolers and commuter bus passengers of Southern Maryland who participated in the First Commuter Holiday Toy Campaign, sponsored by the Tri-County Council for Southern Maryland. With the aid of our ridesharing commuters, the campaign was a success. We were able to donate and distribute toys to needy children in Calvert, Charles, and St. Mary's counties during this past season.

I would also like to express additional appreciation to Ms. Lynn Kuhn in the Calvert County Department of Community Resources; the Calvert County Department of Social Services; Ms. Mary Dial and the Charles County Department of Social Services; the members of the Charles County Christmas Connection; Mr. Thomas Johnson, president of Willetts Discount Liquor and Deli in White Plains, for allowing commuters to utilize his facilities as a distribution site and the donations he himself and his staff contributed; Pastor A. Love and the members of Zion Methodist Church in Lexington Park for allowing commuters to utilize their facility as a distribution site; Ms. Idolia Shubrooks, who in working with the St. Mary's County Department of Social Services, the St. Mary's County Department of Community Services, and Mike's Bikes distributed items in St. Mary's County.

Also, kudos to Mr. Charles Keller and the Keller Transportation staff who allowed commuters the convenience of donating items on the Route 901, Route 904 and Route 905 Flyer Commuter Bus Routes during the campaign and their staff contributions.

We at the Council are very pleased that the "pooling" commuters in Southern Maryland banded together and created additional warmth during the holidays. The benefits of ride sharing are endless. If you or someone you know would like to learn about area carpools, vanpools and commuter bus services, contact the Tri-County Council for Southern Maryland at 301-870-2777 or 1-800-SO-CLOSE, for free information.

JOHN C. SMITH

Chairman, Tri-County Council for Southern Maryland

Bus Drivers Need Support

The [St. Mary's] County Commissioners and the Board of Education have not shown respect for the bus drivers in St. Mary's County by ignoring the problems we face in the past years. I have been trying to get help for improving safety on the roadways that are unsafe for the large vehicles that must use them three and four times a day a day since 1992. There is never enough money!

Bus drivers are required to operate the bus and obey St. Mary's County, Maryland and federal laws and mandates from the Board of Education. We go to required random drug and alcohol testing, which requires waiting one to three hours to be tested. We spend many hours each year gathering information and filling out required reports. When parents want a conference with a driver there is no pay for any of this time. Many hours are spent in keeping the bus clean and safe to operate.

Bus drivers do all these things and try to fulfill the demands put on them. Bus drivers have families, bus drivers get sick, bus drivers get tired and some work other jobs to provide for family members. Bus drivers have emergencies in their families. There is never a substitute driver when you need one!

At the budget hearing on Dec. 8, I heard about all the requests for new books, new computers, more pay and benefits for secretaries, nurses and teachers. What good is all of this if students cannot get to school safely? You depend on the bus driver who is looked on as "Who cares, we can replace you." Yes, we are driving for contractors at savings to the taxpayers. We do not get annual or sick leave, retirement or health insurance. The cost of a board bus and driver is much greater than a contract bus and driver, so why is it being done year after year?

We are a group of people who are asked to accept what we get and deal with it. Each school site has guidelines to go by when handling bus conduct reports. Each school site is doing its own thing. We need help and we need it from the administrators, Board of Education, state and county police, state's attorney, judges and parents. We will never get out of this problem continuing to give all to the disruptive students and failing to protect the students who obey, respect and want something more out of life. Each school site needs a separate driveway for the buses and needs to safeguard it to keep motorists out. We need more prevention in safety and protection of the students at each school site. . . .

It is time for parents and residents of St. Mary's County to tell the Board of Education and the commissioners to be proactive in protecting the lives of our students and the motorists on the roadways in the county. We need to keep experienced bus drivers behind the wheels instead of hiring new drivers. A new bus driver does not know the students and their families. It takes many years to learn all the teachers and administrators at each school that we work with, as well as the students and their parents. Bus drivers build a vast amount of knowledge about their routes and who is supposed to be at a child's stop to receive the 3 1/2-year-old when getting off the bus. Every year, training classes are held to support the never-ending need for more bus drivers and substitutes. Bus drivers are leaving to accept offers from other counties and the Labor Department faster than they can be replaced.

A good pay scale and health insurance is needed and . . . must be provided. One dollar more every five years is nothing cost-wise. It costs more to train and hire a driver. The contractor is not allowed to put a driver behind the wheel until the person meets and attends required training and testing by the Motor Vehicle Administration and the Board of Education.

Bus drivers need to know you are supporting them and you are there for them every day. Stop the abuse that a bus driver lives behind the wheel. We need to keep a team that gives and gives without a single thought. They need your prayers and support in giving their all every day for you and your children.

DON ERVIN

Bus Driver

Hollywood