The hiring of a dietitian to aid in student nutrition. The creation of new liaison positions to help minorities succeed. Maintaining funding for science and gifted and talented programs.
Those were three aspects of Superintendent Renee Foose's proposed $721 million operating budget for fiscal 2014 most commonly lauded at a hearing last week by members of the public.
"A comprehensive, integrated nutrition service in grades K-12 will improve the nutritional status and the health and academic performance of our nation's children," said Barbara Wasserman, of Ellicott City, citing the recommendation of the school system's Food and Nutrition Service Advisory Committee. "Based on information the committee obtained through site visits (to Montgomery and Fairfax counties), we concluded that Howard County food and nutrition services could enhance services currently provided and initiating other services by hiring a full-time, registered dietitian."
Wasserman, a member of the advisory committee, said a dietitian could help the school system work better with elementary students, their teachers and parents, provide better options for students with special diets, and better incorporate nutrition in the curriculum, such as treating a school's cafeteria as a learning laboratory.
A practicing dietitian since 1988, Arlene Taid also supported the hiring of a dietitian at the Jan. 31 public hearing.
"I feel confident that this is the correct approach to a wellness program," she said. "A registered dietitian is a food and nutritional expert who can translate science into practical solutions for healthy learning."
Healthy Howard, Inc. also supports the hiring of a dietitian, said Robin McClave, the organization's Director of Community Health Promotion and Chronic Disease Prevention.
"We see creative approaches to get more movement into the school day ... most of us can figure out how to move our bodies. Unfortunately, there isn't the same level of exposure related to the science of nutrition for students," she said. "For most of us, nutrition might be rocket science. A dietitian on staff could provide resources and tools necessary to address topics most pertinent to students at every age."
Foose's proposed fiscal 2014 budget also includes the creation of two additional community liaisons to the International Student Services Department, which would bring the total to 17. Felicita Sola-Carter, president of Conexiones, an advocacy group for Hispanic students, said that is not enough, given the increase in the Hispanic student population, which accounts for 8.8 percent of the entire student body.
"I want to underscore the critical need for the Hispanic Achievement liaisons," she said. "While the budget calls for the additional positions, the need for the current school year, never mind the future, is for a minimum of 2.5 liaisons. These positions should be allocated on the same basis as other (positions), using the staffing formula rather than being subject to ebbs and flows."
Pat Hatch, a retired program manager in the Maryland State Refugee Office, suggested the school system also create a community liaison position to reach out to the growing number of Burmese Chin refugees — about 1,500 in the county.
"We're just seeing the tip of the iceberg," she said. "These are young families, and they're families with a lot of children. ... Most were not prepared for the lives they find themselves living in Howard County. Many have never spoken English, or are familiar with the Roman alphabet, or owned a vehicle, or know of the public services they can have. There's an extreme need for a Burmese International Liaison for these families, and the need increases every year."
Finally, several students and community members spoke out in favor of the continued funding for science and G/T programs, extolling the virtues of those classes.
"Having experienced the effects of the proper allocation in this budget, I thank you," said Rhea Malik, a senior at Long Reach High School. "I plan on majoring in molecular biology in no small part to the support and opportunities provided by the science department. ... Thank you for erecting the walls of my future."
Edwina Britt, a parent of three "highly able students" in county schools, thanked Foose and the board for funding the various gifted and talented programs throughout the system.
"How many of you would like to watch a movie in slow motion?" she asked. "I have three very different children, and because the G/T program is comprehensive, it has been able to meet their needs in different ways. My children do not have to go to school and feel like they're watching a movie in slow motion."
The board has scheduled public work sessions on the budget Feb. 7, Feb. 12 and Feb. 19. All are in the board room of the Department of Education, 10910 Route 108 in Ellicott City. The board is scheduled to adopt the proposal budget Feb. 21.
County Executive Ken Ulman is scheduled to present his budget to the County Council April 29, the same day as the council's public hearing on the education budget, at the George Howard Building, 3420 Courthouse Drive, in Ellicott City. The council's public work session for the education budget is scheduled for May 14.
The council's final vote on Ulman's budget is May 23. A final school board vote on the budget is scheduled for May 28.