Howard County's top-rated school system can improve, but it will take time and lots of money, according to a detailed response by retiring Superintendent Michael E. Hickey to a 70-point list of citizens' committee proposals.
Due for presentation to the county school board at tonight's meeting, Hickey's report marks the start of what will likely be a long process - and the end of his 16-year tenure. He retires June 30.
Patti Caplan, spokeswoman for the school system, said several recommendations are being done.
"I think that what's significant about both [citizens'] reports is it really does give us a very strong indication of what the community considers to be equity - and what our community would like to see the system address," Caplan said.
The county is trying to change public perceptions about some schools with lower-than-average test scores, higher-than-average poverty rates and immigrant children, and which are often in older buildings.
A trend in the county has concentrated more African-American students in some older schools, mostly in Columbia.
Among the first things Hickey notes is that new Superintendent John O'Rourke will be responsible for handling most of the issues raised by two county government-appointed committees after he begins work July 1.
In some cases, such as the much-discussed outside performance review of the schools, the board, Hickey and O'Rourke have said they will cooperate.
"The school system welcomes the opportunity for an independent performance review of specified elements of the school system," Hickey wrote.
The board has also stopped most open enrollment for next year and agreed to restudy redistricting-all major recommendations of the citizens' groups.
But in other cases, such as recommendation 60 - to created computerized files to follow each student through his or her entire public school career, Hickey replies: "The concept is very meritorious but will require a considerable investment in staff time and training." He labeled the fiscal implications "very significant."
He said the price tag also will be high for things like having two teachers in classes with children who need more help and adding counselors, and even social workers and psychologists where needed.
Bill Benton, co-chairman of the Leadership Committee on School Equity, which was appointed by Hickey and county executive James N. Robey, said the county can capture more outside money to pay for more services by seeking reimbursement from Medicaid and other insurance programs.
"I'd turn somebody loose and pick up a million or two," he said.
But Hickey said the county is doing what it can - a view Benton rejected.
Recommendations like putting more of the best teachers in the most difficult schools were labeled "complex" by Hickey.
Moving good teachers against their will might "diminish that teacher's effectiveness."
County council members said they haven't had a chance to read Hickey's responses but are happy he has prepared them. The council expects to discuss the report with the board at a meeting June 6.
"I'm going to really push far past the simple answers that we've had," said councilman Guy J. Guzzone, a North Laurel-Savage Democrat.
Enthused about the intense exchange of views between the council and the school board this week over the budget, Guzzone said he wants more of that.
Caplan said school employees and the school board "have a genuine interest in pursuing the recommendations of the committee, or at least finding a way to address the recommendations in spirit."
"The intention is there to follow through," she said. "We need to keep the dialogue going."