FOR A YEAR AND A half, Tom Florestano has sat on the Anne Arundel County school board, listening to this bunch of parents and that bunch of legislators tell him how their schools are ready to crumble to the ground.
A few weeks ago it was a contingent from Marley Middle School, begging for $25 million in renovations. "You would have thought the place was Stalag 17," he says. "I finally said, 'Screw it, I am going to go out and take a look.' "
So he did. And you know what he found? That Marley Middle's in pretty darned good shape. "All you have to do in there is paint the gym, because it looks like hell. The roof is sound. The building's built like the Rock of Gibraltar."
The rest of the board agreed; last week Marley Middle was dropped from the list of school construction priorities. But the problem that allowed Marley to sit on the priority list for years, far ahead of truly decrepit schools like Arnold's Belvedere Elementary, still dictates the way business gets done in this school system.
The problem is this: Genuine needs and common sense play second fiddle to political clout and superficial sideshows.
It's driving Tom Florestano nuts. Things weren't done this way during the 15 years he spent as president of Anne Arundel Community College. He knows public education, and he knows this isn't the way it should work.
"I resent my time being spent debating French immersion and school uniforms. We spent two hours talking about a red light in front of Glen Burnie High School. I am not interested in that. I am sick and tired of hearing about some trip to Spain" when there are serious issues to be dealt with.
You would have thought, Mr. Florestano says, that the most recent school construction mistake, a $1 million overrun at Park Elementary, would have topped the agenda at a recent board meeting. Instead, planners let the board sit through hours of minutiae before they mentioned it.
You would think, he says, with money so hard to come by, the emphasis would be on wise use of existing resources. Yet the notion of a new West County High School continues to float about as an answer to overcrowding at Arundel High, while a few miles down the road South River High languishes at 56 percent of capacity.
You would think the children who need help most would be the ones who get it. Yet political influence continues to channel equipment and programs to the haves while the have-nots suffer with leaky roofs and ancient textbooks.
West County has no power base, due to a population composed largely of transient military people and low- to middle-income families. Consequently, Ridgeway Elementary, a "deplorable" building where buckets are needed to catch the rain, is just now getting money for a renovation that won't be complete until 1999.
The power centers are North County and the Broadneck Peninsula. Here, pressure from a vocal corps of parents and relentless elected leaders has paid off. Some of the projects they've won were needed. Others were not.
"Right now," Mr. Florestano says, "if [North County] had its way, we would drop $26 million on Brooklyn Park Middle, and it doesn't need it." Enrollment isn't growing, and the building needs only a modest facelift. The board voted last week to reduce the project, shunting money from Brooklyn Park to Belvedere.
This decision and the demotion of Marley Middle are signs that this board is starting to wise up, stand up to pressure and get priorities straight. But a great deal of damage has already been done.
Right now, taxpayers are pouring $26 million into an addition and renovation of Broadneck High School, barely 10 years old and neither overcrowded nor likely to become so. Enrollment projections at the two middle schools that feed into it are down, and the loss of white-collar jobs makes an influx of new population unlikely.
Yes, it will be nice for Broadneck ninth graders to attend a high school as their peers do. But at a cost of $26 million, when other schools are falling apart?
Clay Street ignored
Meanwhile, Annapolis' poor, black Clay Street community, which desperately wants a new Adams Park Elementary around which to rebuild the neighborhood, does without. This is the County Council's fault, not the board's. But that is less relevant than the fact that once again an area of need has been left wanting. The council deemed it more important to relieve overcrowding elsewhere than reopen a school that could save a community. It was shortsighted and wrong.
Earlier this month, the board and County Executive John G. Gary agreed to consider shifting school construction management to the county, a precedent-setting change that could save money and free the school board to return its focus to education. But it won't mean a thing unless the board, executive, council and state lawmakers -- all of whom have a say in the way education funds are used -- can muster the courage to spend money where it's needed, not where it's guaranteed to earn them votes or spare them grief.
Elise Armacost is The Sun's editorial writer in Anne Arundel County.