Howard County: Small town USA


WE KNOW the answer lies in the economy, in the wide river of revenue that lifts all boats, reduces all class sizes and promises to deal with almost any problem. Take the issues of school "equity" and this year's budget deliberations.

There were some rocky moments, to be sure, some disagreements between county council and school board.

But when the outgoing superintendent of schools can suggest a quick transfer of $130,000 from one pocket to another and -- Voila! -- solve the final problem of a $334.4 million spending plan, you know life is good.

It's only first- and second-grade classes that will get smaller for the moment. But that was the target and this budget hits the bullseye.

Michael E. Hickey, whose last annual budget is now complete, made the $130,000 shift knowing he had a nice cushion to fall back on: some $2.4 million was added this year to anticipate higher gasoline prices. In the scheme of things, that much of a hedge against the oil barons was necessary -- but ripe for a problem-solving raid.

The whole enterprise occurs so quickly and openly and with such comity -- why not, given the low cost? -- that Howard County seems to be solving its problems with uncommon openness and civility. In a sense, you have to say, the problems don't amount to problems at all. Not on the budget front, at least.

Of more enduring concern is the bit of unfinished business Mr. Hickey leaves for his successor. On Thursday evening, he handed over a report with 70 points county residents would like school authorities to address.

Once again, the process reflects a refreshing and healthy -- one imagines, ultimately successful -- approach to significant problems. They will be more challenging, though, because they are not readily solved with money.

They have to do with perception and with social trends.

The 70-point program emerges from the deliberations of two county-appointed committees.

The school department's spokeswoman, Patti Caplan, makes the essential point.

"I think that what's significant about both 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 us to address."

As always, Mr. Hickey offered his professional assessment. But he and the school board stopped most open enrollment opportunities for next year and agreed to restudy school redistricting, both of which were urged by the special study groups.

A suggestion that the schools create computerized files that would follow a child through each successive class would be quite costly and labor-intensive, he said.

So too would having two teachers in classes with children who need more help and adding counselors, social workers and psychologists where they are needed. Clearly, these recommendations are emerging in salad days, days which may not continue even in affluent Howard.

Here, again, citizen involvement produced a worthy suggestion.

Bill Benton, co-chairman of the Leadership Committee on School Equity, believes the system may be eligible for federal assistance -- from Medicaid, for example.

The committee's recommendation did meet some opposition from the outgoing superintendent -- and could from his successor, John O'Rourke. The committee suggested -- quite legitimately -- that the best teachers ought to be working in the most challenging schools. Mr. Hickey called this proposal "complex." Suggested translation: the best teachers want to progress into the most prestigious schools and the system cannot bar them from that movement without losing them.

Still, the system needs to find ways to do precisely what the committee recommends. It is true that the professionals must run the system and that the rest of the county has to trust their judgement.

That trust is there with some qualifications: The school board needs to deal with the perception that it can be a bit formidable -- arrogant, some have said. Perception is reality.

In a real sense, the political authorities are helping with this issue by giving considerable authority and responsibility to these two study groups.

In a sense, it is the best of times for Howard. There's money. There's talent. There's a reasonably good working relationship between many levels of private and public interests.

Now would appear to be the time to make real progress in Howard County -- a big little county that works.

C. Fraser Smith writes editorials for The Sun from Howard County.

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