When we talk about Howard County public schools, we almost always use the word "excellence." I am proud of that description, but I have long been concerned that the more comfortable we grow in thinking that our schools are great, the more complacent we might become about addressing very real challenges.
The most critical of those was highlighted this month, during a "Call to Action" organized by the African American Roundtable, a group my administration helped launch a year ago. More than 800 people attended a forum where a main topic was persistent achievement gaps among different groups of Howard County students.
While those gaps have narrowed, they have not disappeared. Not by a long shot. Members of the African American community in Howard, as well as those representing Hispanics and the special needs population, have championed a more intensive focus to make sure all students perform at the highest levels. I have and will continue to lend my voice to those efforts.
The objective was at the root of our 2011 effort examining the value of ethnic and geographic diversity among the elected leaders of the school system.
Today, we have a new superintendent and have completed a school board election cycle that included frank discussions about the needs of all students. I commend Superintendent Renee Foose for her focus on achievement for all, and I believe she, her team and the educators in Howard County have the right ideas and the right energy to take this effort to the next level.
But we are at a point where words end and actions begin. We need to identify programs and techniques to close those gaps — whether through intensive instruction, adoption of technology or additional training for teachers.
Those solutions will lie with educators, not politicians. But there is a role for political leaders, for it is we who must align our resources with our goals.
We devote 64 percent of county funding to education, and, unfortunately, face real challenges in maintaining that commitment. The property tax base, our largest source of revenue, has been stagnant. It was only a year ago when state leaders shifted to us an enormous unfunded mandate of teacher pension obligations. The additional $12.5 million we will spend this year on pensions is $12.5 million that won't go in the classroom.
So when we close the achievement gap — and that can and must happen because we will not shirk our responsibility — we must at the same time make sure every dollar is spent wisely.
We must renew our efforts to find savings in ways that direct more money to the classroom, whether through smarter ways to pay for benefits or reduced utility costs, or from our soon-to-be-completed Inter-county Broadband Network that will allow the school system to receive Internet and phone service at more affordable rates.
As county executive, I have constantly looked for efficiencies. Since I was first elected in 2006, we have curtailed take-home cars, privatized cell phones and eliminated our print shop and cable television studio, saving the non-education portion of our budget millions.
That same analysis must go into the education budget. My administration's previous effort to identify efficiencies between the county and the school system generated at least $18 million yearly in savings, through shared fleet maintenance, a joint data center and other initiatives. We need to find even more.
Being responsible stewards of public resources and being effective leaders means setting goals and then laying out a plan to achieve them. In this case, the goal is a world-class education system and with the highest possible levels of achievement for all of our children. The way to get there includes not only focused programs, but a review of existing resources. Our children deserve nothing less.
Ken Ulman is the Howard County Executive.