Today, behind the optimism of every fresh-faced kindergartner who shuffles into a classroom for the first time, every high-strung middle school student sporting favorite back-to-school duds, every cocky high school senior who struts down a hallway, lies a sobering truth:
Howard County is spending less money on educating its children.
Roughly $400 less per Howard County student, in fact, from the 1990-1991 school year to this school year when spending is adjusted for inflation. That's enough money for about 10 textbooks, four desks or one week's salary for a teacher's aide.
Multiply that $400 by the almost 39,000 students enrolled this year, and you'll have a good idea why the public schools still haven't recovered from the financial crisis of the early 1990s.
"We took a precipitous drop from money not being a concern in the late '80s, when revenues were phenomenal and the real estate market seemed to have no limit," said county schools' budget officer David White.
"Things aren't as bad as they were a few years ago because we made cutbacks and managed to keep pace with enrollment," he said. "But until there's a major turnaround in the state or local economy, we'll be treading water."
This year's $240 million budget meets the state's minimum standard for keeping up with increased enrollment, called the "maintenance of effort" law. But in one of the nation's most affluent counties -- to which many residents have come precisely because of the public schools' high reputation -- expectations rise as tall as Ivy League towers.
"We're trying to continue what we've done in the past, which is to give the best education we can offer, but with fewer dollars," said Susan Cook, school board chairwoman. "It becomes a balancing act, and sometimes I feel the scales are tipping in the wrong direction."
Added Sharon Argabright, a fourth-grade teacher at St. John's Lane Elementary in Ellicott City: "This is too good a county to be cutting corners."
Budget cuts haven't knocked Howard from its top perch on the Maryland School Performance Program report card, a ranking based on criteria including test scores, attendance and graduation rates. When Howard teachers hear how some of their colleagues in other systems are faring, their aging books and limited supplies seem like an embarrassment of riches.
"I don't dare complain because when I taught in Baltimore, I had a class of 45 and books for only half of them," said George Lovera, a social studies teacher at Glenwood Middle School in western Howard.
Although coping with tight budgets is not new, even for Howard, there are a few first-day-of-school debuts for the county:
Ilchester Elementary and Long Reach High will open their doors to students for the first time. Wilde Lake High students, who have been attending River Hill High for the past two years, will move into their rebuilt facility. And River Hill will have its own student body and faculty for the first time. The high school openings prompted the biggest high-school redistricting in county history.
Long Reach and River Hill will be host of "technology-magnet" programs that focus on preparing students for careers.
Instructional aides, not teachers, will supervise recess and cafeterias. Carol Eckstein at St. John's Lane Elementary said the new responsibility means she will lose one hour a day with small groups of children who need extra help or advanced instruction.
In a move toward decentralization, principals will report directly to school Superintendent Michael E. Hickey. Previously, principals had to deal first with grade-level directors and associate superintendents.
"Hopefully, it will make our administration more responsive to individual school needs because there won't be a filter," said James Pope, St. John's Lane Elementary principal. "It will also make me feel more secure in decisions because I'm getting them from the top."
Visits to St. John's Lane Elementary, Glenwood Middle and east Columbia's Jeffers Hill Elementary -- as well as conversations with principals and school administrators -- show that classrooms are feeling the county's money pinch in small but significant ways.
While the student population keeps growing -- there will be about 1,700 more children in schools this year -- money for textbooks has been shrinking. The amount spent on books per pupil is about half of what it was six years ago.
Wanda Durham, a Jeffers Hill Elementary teacher who orders books for the entire second grade, said she couldn't afford handwriting and spelling books this year. Of course, the absence of texts doesn't means those subjects won't be taught.
"The teachers try not to let cuts affect the students," Cook said. "If a child has to share a book, so be it. If a child has to copy something down from the blackboard, so be it. The child will still learn."
Although the average class size in the county remains about 25 students, that number is only an average and only good on paper.
Cynthia Cuzmanes, a seventh-grade math teacher at Glenwood Middle, has one class with 33 children. St. John's Lane may have to mix first- and second-graders in one room because of average first-grade classes of 27. Jeffers Hill Elementary has some classrooms with less than average numbers, but that advantage may be lost if a teacher is sent to another, more crowded school.
"If you give me 20 kids to teach, I can do a wonderful job," said Bonita Ritchie of Jeffers Hill, speaking last week over the noise of her husband drilling holes in the wall for blackboards. "As the number of kids increases, my ability as a teacher decreases. You can only spread yourself so thin."
Teachers and school officials are also wary of last-minute shuffling because of children showing up unexpectedly at one school and no-shows at another.
"Our estimates are usually right on the mark, but you never know," said Hickey.
As a result of anticipated population shifts and the opening of the new schools, the school system has redistributed some of its portable classrooms. The high schools will have fewer "relocatables" and the lower grades more.
The most striking change will be at Pointers Run Elementary, which will need six more portable classrooms this year to accommodate children from the many new homes in Columbia's River Hill village, Associate Superintendent Maurice Kalin said.
Teachers said it's hard to tell if their allotment of paper, staplers and other basic supplies will last till June. But as Durham said, "We could always use more."
The financial pinch also is being felt regarding school renovations.
Although $7 million was spent this summer repairing parking lots, upgrading air conditioners, removing asbestos and replacing carpets, $15 million more is scheduled for projects over the next several years, Associate Superintendent Sydney Cousin said.
"This is a cycle that we go through with no beginning or end," Cousin said. "You won't find any obvious maintenance oversights, but there are still needs going unmet."
Glenwood Middle teachers and parents made an appeal to the school board this summer to consider the aging facility for renovations. Since the school got air conditioning in 1986, it has had only minimal maintenance work.
"I feel like we've been forgotten about," said Cuzmanes, the seventh-grade teacher.
The budget crunch does take an emotional toll.
Sylvia Pattillo, principal of Hammond High School, encouraged her teachers one day last week to dance the macarena, the new Latin dance craze, on the front lawn to relieve tension.
"I told them to remember the feel of sun on their faces and grass under their feet when they're working 14-hour days with not enough resources," Pattillo said.
Pattillo had quite a wish list of her own: "More teachers, more assistants, more hands. Some newer books. Unlimited copies. Classes in the middle to lower 20s. Another assistant principal. A full-time guidance counselor.
"It's all these things that we can't lose sight of. As an outstanding educational system, we've got to continue to make NTC progress."
Pub Date: 8/26/96