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Baltimore County's $2 million blunder

Joe A. HairstonLocal GovernmentKevin KamenetzElections

We've been told over and over that the most effective way to improve the quality of public school instruction is to put a great teacher in every classroom. But apparently it isn't a very high priority for the Baltimore County School District. In fact, county school leaders seem to think just the opposite.

A Sun analysis this week showed that the district is spending $1.9 million on salaries for newly hired administrative and support personnel in the coming school year, even as it reduces the number of classroom teachers and increases class sizes. The money being spent on hiring some three dozen additional central office personnel would have been enough to save as many as a fifth of the nearly 200 teaching positions the school system plans to eliminate.

Teachers aren't actually getting laid off — there are enough vacancies in the system to absorb those that are being displaced — and the administrative hires are filling existing openings, not new positions. But that still means that the system had a choice between filling teaching jobs and administrative jobs, and it picked the latter.

We're baffled by county schools Superintendent Joe A. Hairston's sense of priorities, which seem to fly in the face of school reform efforts in Maryland and elsewhere that have seen a concerted move toward reducing bloated central office staffs in order to devote more resources to individual schools and classrooms. Of the 35 central office staffers being hired, $1.2 million in salary will go to just 11 employees who make more than $80,000 apiece, including a deputy superintendent earning $219,000.

At a time when school systems everywhere are facing difficult budget decisions, cutting teaching positions and increasing class sizes should be a remedy of last resort. Yet Baltimore County seems bent on doing that first, shoring up the schools' headquarters staff at great expense while reducing the ranks of the classroom teachers who bear the primary responsibility for helping students succeed.

Even more puzzling than the timing of the cuts in teaching positions is the system's rationale for sticking to them. The district claims its hands are tied because of the budget the county executive and council approved. But the county's political leaders were simply working from a proposal drafted by the school system, which knew last January some spending reductions would be necessary. But hiring central office staff instead of teachers was most certainly not the idea of the council and executive.

It's probably too late for the school system to cut loose its new administrators and hire teachers instead. The school budget has already been approved by the council, and the system would likely face legal consequences if it attempted to dismiss the new people it brought in.

But discounting bus drivers, the system still plans to fill more than 30 additional administrative and support staff openings, some of which will likely command hefty salaries. But if the district wants to reorder its priorities — and it should— all it needs to do is ask. None of the county's elected officials can possibly feel comfortable defending an outcome that clearly demonstrates how misplaced the school system's priorities were. In fact, both County Executive Kevin Kamenetz and the County Council made clear their displeasure with the cuts in teaching positions, even if they failed to do much about it. If school officials can bring themselves to admit their mistake, they may be surprised by how positive a reception they get from the powers that be in Towson.

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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