Five schools that have improved on the state's annual skills assessment test over the past two years received an unexpected reward from the Charles County Board of Commissioners this week--$10,000 each.

The cash awards were handed out at an elaborate and jovial lunch on Monday for the staff members of each of the five schools.

County commissioners, school board members and school administrators were on hand for what was billed as a "MSPAP Celebration." The Maryland School Performance Assessment Program (MSPAP) is a battery of tests given each spring to third-, fifth- and eighth-graders in public schools throughout the state.

"The county is on the move and the commissioners are committed to a high-quality education," said Board of Commissioners President Murray D. Levy (D-At Large). "The schools are the most important component in our entire program because no one wants to live in a jurisdiction where the schools aren't excellent."

The commissioners and Superintendent of Schools James E. Richmond said they were pleased with the county's improved performance on the scores released in December, but still had a long way to go before reaching the goal of placing among the top-scoring jurisdictions in the state. In 1999, Charles County posted a composite test score of 43.6 percent, up 1.7 percentage points from the previous year. Scores reflect the percentage of students performing satisfactorily.

The MSPAP test, administered last spring, measures student performance in reading, writing, language usage, math, science and social studies.

It is a high-stakes exam because the state uses it as its main tool for determining whether schools are adequately preparing students, and several school districts as well as the state have come up with incentives for their schools to perform well.

"We hope other schools will say, 'Gee, we can do that, too,' " said Ronald Cunningham, associate superintendent.

County commissioners decided to set aside $50,000 for awards for the five schools that had the largest average jumps in their composite scores over the last two years. About half a dozen other schools that have made some strides will receive smaller cash awards. Each school will have discretion over how the money is spent.

The schools that received $10,000 each were J.C. Parks Elementary in Bryans Road, with an average jump of 16.1 points; Milton Somers Middle School in La Plata, 15.7 points; Malcolm Elementary School, 13.8 points; John Hanson Middle School in Waldorf, 11.7 points; and Mattawoman Middle School in Waldorf, 11.7 points.

Governor Wants Tobacco to Be History in Maryland

Maryland Gov. Parris N. Glendening (D) had some things to say in his State of the State Address last week that should interest Southern Marylanders.

In his annual summation of Maryland's well-being, Glendening not surprisingly declared: "Life is better. . . . Our children's futures are brighter, our communities are safer, and our environment is healthier."

The governor said he will continue his battle against tobacco, spending $300 million on antismoking efforts statewide.

To help the state's tobacco farmers, most of them in Southern Maryland, Glendening pledged to spend $78 million to help farmers "transition out of tobacco and into wholesome, productive crops, closing the book on Maryland's history as a tobacco state."

That last comment already has produced rumblings and grumblings from some in the area who say the governor may be going too far if he tries to erase the historical and cultural heritage built on tobacco in Maryland.

The governor also plans to keep pushing his "Smart Growth" initiative that has become a national model for governments fighting urban sprawl.

"We want to protect our open spaces and reinvigorate our existing communities," Glendening said.

To do that, the governor is proposing something he calls "Smart Codes." The codes would try to bring uniformity across the state to local ordinances and regulations that govern the rehabilitation of buildings and that promote fill-in development and compact, mixed-use projects.

The governor said local jurisdictions would be free to amend the recommended text of such codes. But those that follow the state's prescribed wording and intention "will be eligible for priority funding for initiatives such as our $150 million Neighborhood Conservation Program," Glendening said.

In Southern Maryland, where rapid residential growth during the last decade has made development a key component of local economies, Glendening may need more incentive than that. He seemed to acknowledge in his address that it won't be easy to get county officials around the state to all agree on this latest Smart Growth measure.

"To my friends in county government," he said, "I ask you . . . let us rise above our minor disagreements. Let us focus on the very real, destructive problem of sprawl, and the damage it is doing to all of us . . . both environmentally and financially."

St. Mary's Names Acting Finance Director

St. Mary's County commissioners have named Jeannett Cudmore acting director of finance.

Cudmore, a certified public accountant, will serve in that post until the county has hired a new finance director to replace Steven E. Welkos, who resigned earlier this month to take a job with the state Department of Budget and Management in Annapolis.

Cudmore is a graduate of Frostburg State University and of University of Maryland University College. She had been Welkos's assistant since 1998 and before that worked in the Charles County Fiscal Services Department.

Hoyer Selects Marsh for His Waldorf District Office

Rep. Steny H. Hoyer (D-Md.) has named Bruce Marsh to assist with district office operations, working out of Waldorf and Greenbelt locations.

The move, made earlier this month, came as John Bohanan, Hoyer's district director, took up his new duties in the Maryland General Assembly. Bohanan, who continues as Hoyer's chief aide in Southern Maryland, was appointed to the state House of Delegates late last year to fill the unexpired term of former delegate John Slade III (D-St. Mary's), who was appointed a District Court judge.

Bohanan's chief assignment will continue to be military issues in the 5th Congressional District. Marsh also will work on military matters, as well as with community and business groups.

State Suggests Route 301 Tunnel in La Plata

State Highway Administration officials have asked La Plata to consider running U.S. Route 301 through a tunnel below ground.

The highway's through traffic would pass through town in the tunnel, while local traffic would remain on the highway, highway officials said.

Why would the road builders want such an unconventional option instead of diverting through traffic onto a bypass, as has been proposed?

Turns out the bypass idea is running smack into Smart Growth. Such roadways often attract new development and therefore are out of favor in the governor's office, highway officials have told La Plata leaders.

Calvert School Budget Hearing Rescheduled

The Calvert County school budget hearing originally scheduled for tonight has been snowed out.

The public hearing is now scheduled for 7:30 p.m. next Thursday at Calvert High School in Prince Frederick.