Howard schools seek solution to clogged telephone system; Parents and teachers irked by tied-up lines and lack of voice mail


Call it a communication problem.

Parents complain that the telephone lines for Howard County schools are often busy and they can't get through to staff. Teachers complain that the school lines are often tied up and they can't get through to parents.

Some people are suggesting that more telecommunications resources are in order.

The Leadership Committee on School Equity, a 23-member group that studied the county schools, recommended in a report last month that all teachers and administrators should have voice-mail boxes. At the very least, principals should have voice mail, the committee said.

Committee members were responding to concerns from residents and staff members who testified that telephone lines into and out of schools are consistently clogged.

Tracey Eberhardt, who headed the subcommittee that studied that issue, said she received lots of busy signals when she randomly called some county middle and high schools.

"It would be helpful when you called the school to know you could get through and leave a message for a teacher," said Eberhardt, whose two children attend Bollman Bridge Elementary.

Wilde Lake High School Principal Roger Plunkett would be overjoyed if people got an answering machine instead of a busy signal when calling his school.

"Many parents tell me that 'the lines are too busy at your school,' " he said. "Our phone system is definitely antiquated. In our county, it's a problem for all the schools. When people try multiple times to get us and they can't, then we're failing."

Wilde Lake staff members also have trouble finding phone lines to make calls, he said. He thinks an answering machine system would solve both problems, freeing phone lines because callers could leave messages.

The county's 67 schools have about 900 phone lines and about 3,500 teachers.

Select employees in the system's central office have voice mail, as do staff members at a few schools.

Robert Lazarewicz, executive director of operations for the school system, said he was unaware of the Leadership Committee's voice-mail plan and couldn't estimate the cost. But he says it would be expensive to install and would "take a fair amount of maintenance as well."

But Patti Caplan, the schools' spokeswoman, said she thinks changes are needed. "It's definitely time that we take a look at something comprehensive, something systemwide," she said.

Diana Talabac, whose son is a 10th-grader at Oakland Mills High School, has found that telephones aren't reliably answered after the secretaries leave for the day -- generally about 3 p.m.

"I was always disappointed that there almost never was an answering machine on the main number for after that time or for when a secretary wasn't available to pick up the phone," she said.

Some teachers are similarly frustrated.

Kristine Lockwood, a Glenwood Middle School teacher, roams the building to find a free phone as well as a free line. She has a telephone in her classroom but can't use it to make calls outside the school.

"It's just a huge waste of time," said Lockwood, who advocated telephones in every classroom as part of an unsuccessful bid for school board this year. "I know that some of my students could do better if I could get ahold of their parents more often."

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