Baltimore County school Superintendent Dallas Dance listened to residents' feedback at a community meeting Wednesday night at Loch Raven High School, opening up a line of communication between school officials and the community that many felt had been closed by his predecessor, Joe Hairston.
"It has an immeasurable meaning, being able to be listened to," Julie Sugar, president of the Loch Raven High School PTA and a local education advocate, said after the meeting. "I think that's what's been lacking for so many years in Baltimore County Public Schools. The parents were feeling like they're not being heard, so it's nice to finally feel like we're being heard."
The meeting, one of six community to be held across the county, began with a session in which those in attendance were asked to brainstorm and share five-year goals. During the hour-and-15-minute meeting, Dance then gave his response and laid out some long-term goals of his own, including improvements in academics, safety, communication and organizational effectiveness, and asked the roughly 75 people in attendance what he needed to know about his new system.
The suggestions and comments ranged from the broad, ongoing subjects of school overcrowding, climate control in schools and curriculum issues to specific topics, such as bus stops and allied athletics for special education students.
"I think Dr. Dance is really listening, and I think everybody who is here got their chance to say their piece and really appreciates having a chance to be listened to and to say their piece," Sugar said.
Chosen by the county school board in May to replace Hairston, who retired at the end of the last school year, Dance said that all parents and community members deserve to be heard simply because they've entrusted the school system with the education of their children, and that even though they "may not necessarily agree with everything they say," he and his staff will always listen.
Part of that dialogue, he said, is telling the community about the system's plan. During the meeting, he said the county's school infrastructure is the second oldest in the state and would cost well over $1 billion to fix. He added that even if they've been upgraded with climate control or modern technology, old schools are still old schools.
"Folks like to think of it as just air, but I said it tonight, it's not just air, it's air, it's overcrowding, it's the modernization of buildings," Dance said. "The community deserves to know the price tag, too, so we put that information out there and as a community we figure out what the plan is."
Towson-area school activist Laurie Taylor-Mitchell said the community dialogue is a "huge step in the right direction," but said Dance is "somewhat hamstrung" by the system he inherited and the lack of readily available resources.
"I think he's doing a valiant job of trying to understand what people want and he's going to do the best with what he has. But whether that best with what he has is going to be able to save this system, is another question, because this system is not going to survive unless we don't make a massive commitment to infrastructure," she said.
When he asked for the community's goals for the systems, Dance asked for what they hoped to see changed in the next five years. Since he took over in July, Dance said the community's priorities have been clear on both the infrastructure issues and the four items — academics, safety, communication and organizational effectiveness — that he cited as part of his future blueprint.
"When you hear the same things over and over, it makes it easier for us as a community to address because we're not all over the board," Dance said. "We're focused on what the priorities are."
In the near future, Dance said, the community can expect to see a 100-day report, a transition report, and a strategic plan for going forward.
"It's not going to be a strategic plan driven by Dallas Dance," he said. "It's going to be a strategic plan driven by the community, because Dallas Dance can't do it himself. It's about the people that are going to help get this done, it's about the community, it's about all of us."