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Dance aims to please

Our view: Baltimore County schools superintendent seeks to strike a balance between making schools better and keeping costs down

2:22 PM EST, January 10, 2013

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Dallas Dance has been superintendent of Baltimore County Public Schools for less than half an academic year, but he is proving himself a quick study. The $1.3 billion budget he has proposed for the next fiscal year strikes the kind of balance that county leaders generally love best: progress with penny-pinching.

The usual penurious critics may latch onto the fact that he is seeking a substantial budget increase — $41.9 million, or 3.3 percent — at a time of continued economic challenges for the county (including the closing of the Sparrows Point steel mill). But most of that is simply to accommodate expected growth in the student population of about 1,400 next year. That will require adding 113 teaching positions. The county is also on the hook for about $20 million more in teacher pension costs that were shifted to local governments from the state.

The number that truly reveals that Mr. Dance understands the plight of county taxpayers is this: 0. That's how much he expects Baltimore County government to contribute to schools above the "maintenance of effort" minimum standard imposed by the state.

In other words, he's asking the county to contribute only as much as the state education formula absolutely requires to preserve the existing level of support for students, and not a penny more. It will mark the fourth straight year that Baltimore County will stick to that minimum after exceeding it regularly by as much as 5.6 percent during the previous half-decade.

That doesn't mean the superintendent's first budget doesn't begin to move the schools in a new direction. He is investing more in school security and wireless classroom technology, two areas of concern for the system, as well as moving the schools to the statewide Common Core Curriculum. But the efforts are modest — all his new initiatives cost a total of less than $11 million, with much of it paid for by reductions elsewhere in the budget.

County Executive Kevin Kamenetz is unlikely to find much to dislike in this proposal (which his spokesman says is currently under review). And that will give him ammunition in his quest to resist efforts by some state lawmakers to move the county away from an all-appointed school board. If it's not broken, why fix it?

Add to this the county executive's own efforts to increase spending on school construction, and parents are likely to be pleased, too, particularly those whose children attend schools that lack air conditioning. That proved a surprisingly effective issue for Mr. Kamenetz when he ran for office three years ago promising to correct it.

If there is a serious criticism to be made of the budget proposal, it's the one Mr. Dance has already offered. In presenting his proposal Tuesday, he noted that the county's per-pupil spending will remain below the state standard — a circumstance that is "not something we should be celebrating."

Some may see Baltimore County's education spending (it has lagged the statewide average for many years) as simple cost-effectiveness. After all, county schools continue to rank well in the state and the nation, including the fourth-highest graduation rate among major school districts, according to Education Week.

But a system that has aspirations to be on the level of Howard County is unlikely to get there by spending substantially less on teachers and the classroom tools they need to be successful. Moreover, in a district with the second-oldest buildings in the state, the lack of air conditioning is only the beginning of Baltimore County's facilities problems. At some point, moving to the next level is going to require more money. One of Mr. Dance's favored initiatives, for instance, is the "AdvancePath Academy" that uses online instruction to help at-risk students and costs about $1 million per school. That high price tag is why it's currently available in only a handful of high schools and is slated to expand to just one more school under the budget plan.

Nor could it be said that the budget is excessively generous to teachers. It will raise their salaries but only through step increases, with no broader cost-of-living adjustment. Officials say this will amount to a 2 percent raise, on average.

Mr. Dance's modest budget request represents yet another example of how closely he is paying attention to the school system's stakeholders — and not just the school board or elected officials. His choice to invest $2.5 million next year to upgrade basic security in schools in wake of the shooting at Perry Hall High School last fall (and reinforced by the Newtown, Conn., massacre more recently) is another.

But we would also expect him to advocate for county schools even when elected officials are reluctant to invest more money in them and even if it means raising taxes. Who better than the superintendent to push for excellence, regardless of the political consequences? Admittedly, the first year on the job may not be the moment, but the day will come soon enough when Mr. Dance can't just bemoan the county's choice to spend less on public education on a per-pupil basis than the state average but will need to do something about it.

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