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A way forward for county schools

Last night, I presented a $1.3 billion operating budget proposal for Baltimore County Public Schools for fiscal 2014. Due to financial limitations, the proposed budget does not meet all of our needs, but it provides a good foundation related to our three budget priorities: managing continued growth in student enrollment; raising the bar and closing gaps in student academic achievement; and investing in our future by strengthening our infrastructure.

Team BCPS members — the Board of Education, staff, parents, students and community leaders — have spoken out in a wide variety of public forums and social media, and they have clearly articulated what our school system needs most. The common themes that emerged were establishing a world-class curriculum, maintaining school safety and security, ensuring open and timely communication, and transforming school facilities into 21st century learning environments. The community has spoken, and the community's ideas are reflected in our budget proposal.

Enrollment has been on the rise for the past five years, and by fiscal 2019,we expect it to grow by an additional 6,000 students, to an enrollment of 111,550. To meet the projected increase in enrollment for next school year, the fiscal 2014 budget proposal includes more instructional positions, school counselors, kindergarten assistants and classroom materials for our teachers and students.

Our school district has done well, but our community has made clear that "doing well" is not sufficient. We still have significant achievement gaps, and we must close them. In the global marketplace, success demands higher levels of education and skill. We need to ensure that we educate every child with deliberate excellence in every classroom, every school, every community — every day. To support this, we are requesting funds for a world-class curriculum, expansion of our credit recovery program (which allows students to avoid falling behind and not graduating on time) and additional resources for low-performing schools. Only through raising the bar and closing achievement gaps will we eventually be able to boast that BCPS is the best school system in the nation.

To move from where we are to where we want and need to be, I believe we must first do what Jim Collins, the author of "Good to Great," suggests, and that is to "confront the brutal facts." One of those brutal facts is that our school facilities need to become safe and secure academic environments that better support 21st century teaching and learning. Investing in our future means we must have a comprehensive student data system, a wireless infrastructure in every school, and staffing and equipment to ensure school safety and security.

Student safety has always been a primary concern for those of us in education — not just because of the turmoil and loss violence brings but also because we recognize that violence perpetrated by young people reflects unmet mental health and behavioral needs. Therefore, to address school safety, we seek to prevent problems by expanding student support services along with best-practice security measures and equipment and to enhance our emergency response preparation. We ask that our state legislators keep the mental and emotional needs of students in mind as the conversation regarding school safety and security evolves in Annapolis.

A final fiscal 2014 operating budget won't be approved by the County Council until May. It will be reviewed first by the Board of Education and county executive. Along the way, changes will be made, and the community will continue to have a voice in its development, such as at the public hearing Jan. 15 at West Towson Elementary School.

More than simply a necessary fiscal exercise, the process of budget development calls upon all of us to get involved, to think about what really matters for our students, and to ensure that our limited resources are spent in the most effective way to yield meaningful academic progress.

Under the leadership of county government officials, county and state legislators and Gov. Martin O'Malley, and with the strength and activism of Team BCPS, I feel confident that our core values will be translated into a bigger and better investment in our youth that will benefit this community as a whole.

Dallas Dance is superintendent of Baltimore County Public Schools. His email is ddance@bcps.org.

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