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Roemer: Parents voting with their feet, sending CCPS a message the school system should hear | COMMENTARY

Carroll County Public Schools’ enrollment is down 777 students, year-over-year. The assumption is this decline is likely COVID-19 related, and everything will return to normal once the pandemic is over. That’s an assumption the public shouldn’t be too quick to accept.

Because the state annually allocates school funding based on the number of students enrolled in each school system, a 777-student decline means a hit to CCPS’ budget totaling millions of dollars. Chris Hartlove, CCPS’ chief financial officer, told the Times he’s concerned the loss of state funding will put the school system “in a bind” because it’s not in a position to reduce expenses.

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I’m not sure why that is. CCPS has a $370 million budget.

Regardless, if a business was shedding customers at a rate that impaired its ability to pay its bills, you better believe someone would be taking a real hard look to make sure management understood the reasons why.

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Unfortunately, it doesn’t appear that’s happening. Karl Streaker, CCPS’ director of Student Services, succinctly summed up the system’s reaction to the loss of state funding when he told the Times, the school system is relying on its “wonderful relationship” with the county commissioners, by which I suppose he meant the school system is counting on Carroll County’s taxpayers to make up the budget shortfall.

The fact that hundreds of families are turning their backs on the public school system should concern all taxpayers, and CCPS needs to make very sure it knows exactly why it’s happening. However, it appears, CCPS doesn’t even know where the 777 students have gone. Jon O’Neil, CCPS’ chief of Operations, told the Board of Education the system has lost students to home schooling and private schools, “But beyond that, it’s a little bit speculative.” Speculative? Maybe someone could give these families a call and find out.

Perhaps enrollment will “bounce back,” but what if it doesn’t? What if there are other reasons why CCPS is losing so many students? Before the commissioners even consider using additional taxpayer dollars to make up the projected shortfall, doesn’t prudence demand the system look into that possibility?

The public school system is competing with a growing number of local private schools to attract the students it needs to pay its bills. The commissioners must require that CCPS do everything it can to determine exactly why it is losing so many students, including assessing whether it’s current educational programs are comparable to those being offered by private school competitors. Right now, it would be hard to argue what CCPS is offering families is comparable.

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Whether hybrid or fully online, distance learning is failing an unacceptably high number students. Schools are open. Schools are closed. Wednesdays will be “asynchronous.” Then again, maybe not. A veteran special education teacher tells the Times her inability to meet the needs of students has been “a nightmare.” And then there is Commissioner Frazier’s complaint the BOE isn’t being nice to him.

All this gives the impression something’s wrong. I have to believe this dysfunction has contributed to the loss of students, but there may very well be deeper problems that are driving families away. Shouldn’t we know?

The fact is, many students who never attended a private school before are currently having that experience for the first time. Some are wondering why they didn’t consider private schooling earlier. It will be interesting to see how many really do return to CCPS when the pandemic ends, but no one should be sitting around assuming that’s what’s going to happen, or the current multimillion funding shortfall may well become an annual problem with which the school system and the commissioners are forced to deal.

Carroll County is blessed with many quality private schools. For some the tuition is out of reach, but for many others that’s not the case, and some parents are surprised just how affordable a private school can be when they begin looking into that possibility for their children. CCPS needs to recognize it is not the only game in town, and some parents are discovering CCPS may not be the best game in town, either.

Declining enrollment represents a real risk to the long-term financial well-being of the school system, and it is a risk the commissioners best take seriously. When hundreds of parents decide they would rather use their own money to pay tuition rather than send their children to a “free” public school, we need to pay attention to the message they are sending. Parents are voting with their feet, and the commissioners should not respond by blithely deciding the best thing to do is simply write CCPS a bigger check. In fact, until it has done it’s due diligence, CCPS shouldn’t receive one additional taxpayer dollar.

Chris Roemer writes from Finksburg. Reach him at chrisroemer1960@gmail.com.

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