Parents, teachers, community groups and students crowded the Board of Education's meeting room last night to ask board members to add money to Superintendent John R. O'Rourke's already bulging proposed operating budget.
One group fairly dominated the board's first public hearing on the proposed $389.6 million budget - parents and students from the county's successful Black Student Achievement Program.
BSAP falls under the system's Department of Academic Support, which seeks to understand and minimize dysfunctional patterns and gaps in academic achievement. That department submitted a request for more than $130,000 in increased funding to accommodate the "exponential" growth in students it serves, Director Jacqueline F. Brown said, but nothing was included in O'Rourke's proposal.
Armed with the latest state achievement exam scores, which show African-American and poor children lagging significantly behind other Howard students, the speakers pleaded with the board to increase funding for programs such as BSAP.
Second- and third-graders struggled to reach the microphone to explain how BSAP Learning Centers - in five neighborhood locations around Columbia - help them with reading, math, homework, and give them a place to go after school until working parents get home.
Older students clamored for the board to hire enough academic mentors to staff every school in the county with at least one.
"As a black student, I can honestly say that it is imperative for all black students in Howard County to receive continued support and guidance to excel in high school," said Samantha McCoy, 17, a senior at Long Reach High School and president of the county's Black Student Advisory Council. "Even schools like River Hill, Centennial and Glenelg, where the population of black students is low, need to have full-time mentors."
Howard County Education Association President Joe Staub earned a standing ovation and extended applause for his testimony - a rousing plea for more money for teachers and other employees, "whose ever-increasing workload is rewarded by near-poverty-level wages."
Staub suggested that many Howard teachers, as well as sought-after new ones, might choose "the school system next door" - Montgomery County - where they could earn up to $12,000 more for the same level of experience.
"While I will not comment publicly about specifics at a time when negotiations have just recently begun," Staub said, "I will call upon this Board of Education to make a commitment to its employees, a commitment to provide salary increases which will enable Howard County to become and remain competitive with surrounding jurisdictions."
O'Rourke's preliminary $389.6 million proposal for fiscal year 2003 represents a 5.6 percent increase over this year's budget. That's $20.8 million more than the school system is working with now and close to $15 million more than O'Rourke asked for last year.
But that figure, which O'Rourke calls conservative, does not include raises for teachers or other school system employees because those groups are in the middle of contract negotiations. For that reason, the final figure likely will be much higher - a prospect that has county officials, responsible for funding the budget, cringing.
That fact didn't stop Howard Education Support Professionals from coming out en masse, asking the board to honor the assessment of a consultant the board hired in June 2000, recommending that pay be raised for that group. Such a move could add hundreds of thousands to an already tight budget.
Education support professionals include the system's health and science assistants, guidance office secretaries, principals' secretaries, teachers' secretaries and instructional assistants.
Parents asked for more funding for language programs for children who speak limited English, and special education and alternative learning programs.
Math and science students and teachers begged for more planning time, smaller classes, laboratory assistants and better technology.
Lee Summerville, a former science coordinator for Howard and Montgomery County schools, told board members Howard was "woefully behind" many counties in the region in terms of technology.
"In Montgomery County ages ago - 1983 - six computers were assigned to every science department," Summerville said. "And this is not true of many schools in 2002 in Howard County."
And although it had been pushed to the back-burner in recent months, Howard's old-faithful hot topic - crowding - made its way back into the fray last night.
Sue Nass, president of Hollifield Station Elementary School PTSA, reminded board members that the school remains crowded and needs an additional assistant principal to help manage the building, its students and faculty.
The board will hold two work sessions in as many weeks on the proposed budget and is expected to approve a revised proposal Feb. 26.