Democrats to persist on schools; Council majority says it will continue to press for control; Diversity at issue; One member suggests reducing flexibility of board's budget


The Howard County Council's three Democrats say they want more control over conditions in county schools, and one suggested reducing the school board's spending flexibility.

"It may be time for the county to consider a serious departure from past practice," said West Columbia Democrat Mary C. Lorsung.

The Democrats, led by Council Chairman C. Vernon Gray, vow to continue momentum from Monday night, when 250 people turned out for a meeting council members held to discuss problems facing older schools, especially in Columbia.

"We expect that the dialogue that we start tonight will be the beginning, not the end, of your collaboration with us," Gray told the gathering, also attended by top school officials and County Executive James N. Robey.

Gray said two more public meetings will be held next month, Nov. 8 and 29. The council members hope to obtain specific information about problems in schools to use in meetings with the school board in December, and in reviewing the annual budget next spring.

Lorsung said that to gain more control over schools, the council could deal with the school system's huge budget in separate program segments, a departure from past practice.

That would reduce the system's spending flexibility by preventing school officials from later transferring money within the budget.

The three Democrats constitute a majority on the five-member council.

Ten speakers selected by the Democrats addressed Monday's gathering, listing numerous complaints about the physical condition of older schools and about perceived educational problems. They asked the county's elected leaders for help they said they have not been getting from the school board -- an allegation school officials vehemently dispute.

The issue is larger than physical conditions of schools, Lorsung said at the meeting. "The community needs to engage the school system in a dialogue on diversity."

The concern is over a concentration of African-American students in older schools, mostly in Columbia, that also have higher-than-average numbers of students on free lunches, more transient students and lower standardized test scores.

Guy J. Guzzone, a Laurel-Savage Democrat whose children attend Guilford Elementary, one of the 17 elementary schools the county has identified as academically trailing, said he was confronted with the problem in a very personal way after moving to a home in Kings Contrivance village several years ago.

"As soon as we moved in," he said, neighbors asked, "Are you going to send your kid to our local school? It's one of the lowest-ranked schools in the county."

He did send his children to Guilford, and he volunteers there. "To me, this is the time we must deal with this," he said, noting that one in five children promoted from third grade in Howard County isn't reading at grade level.

"There's the [public] will right now to deal with it," Guzzone said.

The three Democrats sat together at the meeting with Robey in the staff seating in the council chamber.

Although western county Councilman Allan H. Kittleman and Ellicott City's Christopher J. Merdon attended Monday night's meeting, the two Republicans complained they were excluded from active participation. The Republicans were not invited to sit with the majority Democrats, Kittleman said, and sat in the audience.

"They're dividing up the county," Kittleman said of the Democrats, risking a renewal of the old animosity between residents of Columbia and the rest of the county.

He accused the Democrats of inviting selected people to speak so they could control the comments made.

"They're just hearing what they already know," he said.

But the Democrats rejected that view, saying they invited PTA leaders and other representatives of older county schools to speak because they want to hear about problems at those schools.

The complaints they heard ran the gamut from charges that poorly drawn school district lines are concentrating minority and poorly performing students into some schools, while elsewhere, the lines are dividing cohesive communities. Sometimes, one speaker said, efforts to help have hurt troubled schools.

Rick Wilson, PTA president at Wilde Lake Middle School, said the board's designation of Wilde Lake as "protected," which prevented children from transferring until enrollment reached capacity, hurt the school.

"It basically turned us into a leper colony" and created a stigma about the school that damaged its image, he said.

The school board lifted the protected designation this year, according to school board Vice President Stephen C. Bounds, to allow unhappy Columbia parents -- who are mostly white -- to hire a bus and transfer their children to the newer, but less diverse Lime Kiln Middle School in Fulton.

Those parents were so unhappy with Wilde Lake, Bounds said, that it was better to let them leave Wilde Lake than have them continue to criticize the school. Protected status is used to prevent losing students in schools with small enrollments, he said, and "has not been perceived as a stigma at other small schools."

Wilson and others also complained that good principals often take a school's best teachers with them when they transfer to new buildings and the school board refuses to replace some features at older schools, such as old playground equipment. Poorer community PTAs can't afford to replace such expensive equipment, speakers said.

Joe Staub, president of the Howard County Education Association, which represents county teachers, said that often veteran teachers seek transfers to new schools so they can work at a technically advanced, state-of-the art building, leaving less-experienced teachers in older schools.

"For example, Dasher Green Elementary, a focus school, had 15 new teachers this year," Staub said. Dasher Green, in Owen Brown in east Columbia, is one of eight older Columbia elementary schools that have lost 928 white students during the past decade, while African-American enrollment has increased by 609 children.

Donna Thewes,a parent from North Laurel concerned about Laurel Woods Elementary, one of the county's lowest-performing schools, complained that talking to the school board is like talking to a wall.

"The county blames the children and the neighborhood. 'If you don't like it, move out,' " she said is the message people in her community have received from school officials.

The result, she said, is that "no one can sell their townhouses and condos, so they rent them out." More rentals lead to more instability in schools, she said.

"I want my children in a racially blended community," Thewes said, but "people are not getting their concerns addressed" by the school authorities. "There's a paranoia down in that area."

Hickey, who listened to all the speakers, said after the meeting Monday that the complaints were nothing he hasn't heard before.

Many people, he said, are uninformed about the extra steps and programs school officials are using to bring equity to county schools. Also, he observed, "The invited speakers, some of them, have agendas of their own.

"Hopefully, when we meet with [the council] in December, if we don't meet before then, we'll have a chance to discuss some perspectives," Hickey said.

Sun staff writer Tanika White contributed to this article.

Pub Date: 10/20/99

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