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Education

‘I’m over the dog & pony show!!!’: Baltimore County Council and superintendent meet after letters on school issues

After a series of back-and-forth letters between members of the Baltimore County Council and the county schools superintendent, the parties brought their heated debate to a virtual discussion Thursday night.

The meeting aimed to bring together the entire County Council and the superintendent to talk about issues with transportation in the school district, including a bus driver shortage and students sometimes being left without means to get to school. However, council members expanded the conversation to touch on disappointments over teacher shortages and lowered academic performance metrics — other nationwide issues that they want Superintendent Darryl L. Williams’ administration to solve by next school year.

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“I think [teacher retention] is an issue that we should be able to resolve, just like with the academic issues,” said council member Wade Kach. “When I was a teacher, we would know what it is that the kids didn’t understand and we would make sure that problem was resolved.”

Kach and four other council members — David Marks, Tom Quirk, Cathy Bevins and Todd Crandell — expressed their discontent with county schools leadership via a letter June 7 and asked the school board to conduct a superintendent search before renewing Williams’ contract. Quirk and Bevins are Democrats; the other three council members are Republicans. They took issue with the school system not resolving problems in a timely manner and said the fact that other school systems are experiencing similar obstacles is no excuse.

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Williams replied via a letter, claiming that the council members’ writing fails to acknowledge how the world has been changed by events like the coronavirus pandemic.

During this same week, the council voted to deny the school system’s request to transfer funds out of its transportation budget.

Williams started the meeting Thursday with a presentation on the state of transportation problems and improvements in the system. He said 26% of the system’s bus routes need bus driver coverage, and that shortages are caused by driver vacancies, callouts and leave time. Currently, he said, the system is updating discipline reporting on buses and using technology to track bus routes.

On July 1, the system plans to increase the value of the bus driver compensation package with driver wages starting at $19.02 per hour, $2 more than current base pay. The drop-off window at middle and high schools will extend by 30 minutes, and the system will try to have riders confirm whether they will be taking the bus to ensure they have a ride. A transportation consultant from Howard County had also been hired to assist with fixing system issues.

About 15 minutes into the presentation, Bevins wrote in the chat, “I’m over the dog & pony show!!!” Williams did not acknowledge the message.

During the Q&A portion of the meeting, Bevins told Williams his timing for the meeting is “uncanny” since it coincides with the last day of school. She said she was alarmed by claims that council members were speaking out only because this is an election year.

“I don’t think it has anything to do with politics,” Bevins said. “It has to do with us answering to our constituents.”

Quirk left 30 minutes into the meeting due to a prior engagement. Before departing, he shared concern over busing and the system’s academic statistics. He said county schools are ranked 19th out of 24 systems in the state for graduation rate and have the fifth-highest dropout rate.

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Williams responded to the statistics by saying there has been an uptick in academic performance metrics for certain student groups that have not seen increases before. He did not specify the student groups or metrics, but offered to discuss the data at a different meeting.

Marks asked Williams why the northeast sector of the school system seems to have more busing issues. Williams said that area in particular tends to have more drivers calling out, coupled with vacancies and drivers on leave. Marks added comments on discipline concerns in schools and asked to see problems resolved by September.

Crandell noted that the past two years have been “not easy” and that some problems are beyond Williams’ control. However, he said the school system has been slow to respond. He said transportation issues have lasted the entire academic year. But when Crandell asked when the system brought on the transportation consultant, he was displeased to hear that the answer was February.

“When we see things going wrong and we see a budget as big as yours maybe not used as best that it could be and then we get a request to move $5.5 million out of the transportation budget into a completely different area of your budget — that’s cause for concern for us,” Crandell said.

Council member Israel “Izzy” Patoka thanked Williams for the open dialogue and acknowledged that resignations have been nationwide. He asked Williams whether the school system is losing bus drivers to the private sector, which is able to pay them more; Williams said that is true. After bus drivers are trained, they may choose to take their skills elsewhere for higher compensation, which is why the system wants to increase driver pay, Williams said.

Kach said the school system needs to figure out its major problems and focus on those first — while applying easy fixes quickly.

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“We should be the best. We should strive to be the best,” Kach said. “We should not be looking at other school systems that are having the same problems because they’re having a problem.”


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