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Attitude seems to be the difference between the successful library system, foundering school system [Editorial]

Both public libraries and free, universal public education are regarded as cornerstones of American democracy.

A line of reasoning embraced by the nation's founders holds that for the regency of the general public to endure, the elected government would have to make sound and reasonable public policy decisions. That government would also have to change its public policy decisions when it made mistakes.

Importantly, the people making the decisions would have to know when to change and when to stay the course on a particular public policy direction.

To make well-reasoned and forward thinking public policy decisions that would contribute to the prosperity of the general public, the people making decisions would need to be well-educated and well-informed.

The people making decisions in this system would not be well-educated members of a royal family, or a distinguished and learned group of self appointed elders, but rather the general public. For the general public to be well-educated and well-informed, it would need an education system that educates everyone and a public library so people could keep on top of the latest developments, and delve into the wisdom of the ages.

Of course, managing public education and public library systems is in itself a concern of public policy, and in Harford County lately, the public library system seems to have a better handle on how to manage itself through economic hard times than does the public school system.

Though its budgets have been moving steadily upward, even as its enrollment has been inching down for several years running, the public school system went into something of a panic mode this year when its county funding allocation was held steady at last year's level (actually, it went up slightly). The reaction was to cut more than 100 positions.

Many of the positions would be lost to attrition – that is to say not replacing people who retire or move on for other reasons – but 46 would come about as a result of teacher layoffs. At least that was the school system's plan in mid-June. A week later, the school system announced it would be rehiring 32 of the 46 teachers who had been let go.

Meanwhile, another reaction every bit as knee-jerk as that of laying off 46 teachers, the plan to charge per student fees of $25 and $50 to participate in extracurricular activities like band and sports, remains in effect. It remains to be seen if this foolishness will remain in place by the time school starts, but there's good reason to believe the school system can find other places to save money so it doesn't have to make these kinds of cuts.

The school system is poised to operate with a budget of about $455.3 million in the fiscal year that began July 1, roughly the same as what it had been allocated in the year that ended June 30. It had sought, but not received, an additional $20 million over the $221 million the county had spent on the school system last year. (Most of the balance of the $455.3 comes from the state government.)

That figure of $20 million certainly is a lot of money to an individual, but it constitutes substantially less than 5 percent of the total $455.3 million spending allocation. Given that many taxpayers – including many employees of the school system – have been asked to get by without raises even as prices for things like gasoline and food have increased, it is reasonable to ask the same of the school system.

Furthermore, it is reasonable to ask the school system to make ends meet with the same amount of money while educating fewer students without doing things like firing teachers and putting burdens on high profile and popular programs like band, drama, athletics and such.

Actually, given the cuts and revenue enhancements chosen by the school system, the budget moves to date have all trappings of a maneuver designed to get as much public sympathy as possible. And that's been the standard approach for years from the Harford County Public Schools leadership.

The library system, meanwhile, has taken a different tack.

It's budget is substantially smaller – it approved an operating budget for the year that begins July 1 that totals $18.3 million, with an increase of $105,000 from the county. For those keeping track, the increase from the county constitutes about half a percent of the total spending plan for the library system.

Now the library system had taken budget hits a few years back and ended up cutting hours and closing branches on Sundays. Since then, it has made due with relatively small budget increases like the one allocated this year, all the while finding ways to increase hours and reinstate Sunday operations. This year was no exception. Part of the $105,000 increase the libraries are receiving, a total of about $30,000, will be spent on adding Jarrettsville to the list of libraries open on Sundays during the school year, with the balance of $75,000 being used to buy library materials, which is to say books, audio and visual materials and periodicals.

Though the library system leadership made moves to cut when the economy first resulted in decreased government budgets all around, it quickly moved to find efficiencies and bring back services.

This contrasts sharply with the reaction of the school system to having its budget increases curtailed. (It is important to note that the school system's budget has never actually been cut from one year to the next. It almost always increases substantially. It doesn't, however, increase by the amount typically requested by the school system. The request is what is cut, even as the year to year amount is increased.)

Certainly, there are differences in the scale of the public library and school systems, but if anything, the much larger school system should be the one more well-suited to finding internal economies. On the whole, it appears the biggest difference is in the attitude of those in charge.

Henry Ford is credited with the sentence that probably best characterizes the differences between the leadership teams of the local library and school systems.

His quote: "Whether you think you can or whether you think you can't, you're right."

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