Board hears parents' concerns; Crowded school buses, classes are main problems mentioned


Complaints about crowded buses and crowded classrooms were brought before the Carroll County school board last night by parents, raising concerns typical at the beginning of a new school year.

Board members became spectators for much of their meeting, listening as administrators pleaded for patience from citizens.

Marlene Pruitt, whose daughter attends Sykesville Middle School, said as many as 75 students were crammed into buses last week for the trip home from school, some sitting four to a bench seat and many standing.

She brought props: six children with backpacks, seated shoulder to shoulder on mock bus seats assembled in front of the board members' table.

"When a serious accident occurs, you will be asked why children were so crowded and why this emergency situation was not addressed years ago," said Pruitt, who was representing a handful of parents in attendance.

The school system was stung this year when several contracts with bus companies were canceled unexpectedly at the end of the summer, said Transportation Supervisor Jim Doolan. The school system, Doolan said, is still four buses short in southern Carroll County, and many students at both Oklahoma Road Middle and Sykesville Middle have been riding crowded buses.

Doolan assured parents that routes were being readjusted, bringing all buses under capacity -- with fewer than 60 students, and no more than three students on a seat -- at Oklahoma Middle by today, and at Sykesville Middle by Friday. He said riding three to a seat is typical -- and allowed by law -- at the elementary and middle school levels. Most high school students in the system are able to sit two to a seat.

Doolan said crowding is common the first week of school. He added that state law permits students to stand on buses at the beginning of the school year so that systems can readjust routes.

"We always have some buses that give us a surprise," Doolan said.

Superintendent William H. Hyde said the school system is exploring new strategies that might encourage more contractors to take on routes in Carroll.

The system also is looking for ways to have fewer students in each classroom.

Vicki Anzmann, PTO president at Friendship Valley Elementary, said that in the first week at her school, first-grade math classes had as many as 30 students. Cindy Cummings, president of the Carroll County Education Association, said high school teachers are complaining that some classes have as many as 35 to 40 students.

Again, administrators asked for more time. Dottie Mangle, assistant superintendent for instruction, said classes cannot always be kept at ideal sizes when school begins. She said her staff would use class-size figures taken on Sept. 30 to make necessary adjustments.

"We always have enrollment fluctuations in September," she said.

Administrators also stressed that parents would be wise to take class-size complaints to school principals, because many staffing decisions and other strategies that affect the numbers are made at the individual schools.

When board members moved to their agenda last night, they resolved a long-standing debate over systemwide goals. They voted unanimously to approve a list of four goals -- student achievement, safe and orderly environment, maximization of resources, and continuous improvement -- written by the administration.

The issue became contentious in July, when member Susan W. Krebs complained that the board did not have enough input in drafting the goals and insisted the issue be tabled.

The board met last month in a work session to discuss its own ideas, and several were added last night. For example, the board added that the school system's improvement plan must include "all students reading on grade level by second grade with heavy emphasis on phonics instruction."

In other business:

The board voted unanimously to approve a long-range facilities planning committee that will deal with the prickly subject of redistricting in future years. Board member Krebs and about 20 parents, principals, staff and students will serve on the committee.

The board unanimously approved a committee to plan construction of a new Gateway school for special-needs students. Board member C. Scott Stone will serve on the group with parents, teachers and staff.

Leon Dorsey II, president of the Carroll chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, told the board he has met with Superintendent Hyde to discuss the hiring of minority teachers. His organization is concerned that, while the number of minority applicants for teacher positions in Carroll County doubled this year, fewer were hired.

The committee overseeing a performance audit of the school system reported that, at an Aug. 23 meeting, school staff educated the committee about the functions of each school department. The committee expects to recommend an outside firm to conduct the audit to the board and county commissioners by mid-January. The committee, which next meets Sept. 27, said in its report that future meetings will be closed to the public.

The board hired two new construction assistants -- Richard D. Buchanan, former assistant supervisor for construction and planning for Harford County Public Schools, and Ellen Mary Becker, former project manager for SPN Inc. Construction Managers of Rockville. They join three other assistants who report directly to Supervisor of Construction Raymond Prokop.

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