PRESTON - In the school system that spends the least per child in Maryland, just taking care of basic needs requires something extra.
The elementary school's bright classroom walls? Teachers came in during summer vacation to do the painting themselves.
The new bookshelf that just got installed in the principal's office? The custodian crafted it out of an old wooden pallet.
And those big, heavy-duty staplers? They were salvaged from a trucking company that went out of business a few years ago.
"Imagine if the teachers and other staff didn't have to do those things, because we had the money to buy bookshelves and have maintenance staffs to paint the walls," says Susan Frank, principal of Preston Elementary School. "Think what a difference we could make if they could spend that time and energy thinking about instruction."
For a school system with as few dollars as Caroline County, the $1.1 billion in increased state education spending recently recommended by a Maryland task force represents things that educators and parents can now only dream about - reading specialists in elementary schools, a broad array of advanced placement classes for high-achieving students, maybe even pay raises for teachers that would put them on par with their Eastern Shore peers.
"What couldn't we do with that money?" asks Jennifer Shull, who has a daughter in fourth grade at Denton Elementary School. "One of the things they've had to cut are classes if your child is gifted.
"If your child excels, they just have to move along at the same pace as everybody else because there isn't any money for any extras like that."
In many ways, the struggles of the small rural systems of the Eastern Shore and Western Maryland were why the Thornton Commission was created two years ago - to reduce inequities and ensure that schools have enough money to meet state student achievement standards.
And if the commission's recommendations aren't carried out this year, officials in those systems say they're ready to file a lawsuit against the state for not meeting the educational funding obligations of Maryland's Constitution.
Under Thornton's recommendations, the $2.9 billion spent by the state on public schools this year would increase by almost 10 percent next year. The rest of the $1.1 billion boost would be phased in over the remaining four years and require greater local spending.
Fate in General Assembly
But Gov. Parris N. Glendening's proposed budget does not include any money for the commission's plan. So its fate is perhaps the most significant issue facing the General Assembly this session, affecting a tight state budget, school spending in all 24 jurisdictions and the future of Maryland education.
Caroline County would receive $3 million in extra state funding next year under the Thornton recommendations. And within five years, it would get an additional $13.6 million - a pittance compared with the $305.8 million for Prince George's County.
But for Caroline, $13.6 million is a big windfall. Its entire school budget is only about $37 million.
"It would be huge," says Dane A. Coleman, president of Caroline's school board and former president of the state association of school boards.
With about 5,600 pupils, Caroline is Maryland's sixth-smallest system and has 10 schools: five elementary, two middle, two high and one vo-tech.
It is the last of the state's 24 jurisdictions in which agriculture is the primary source of income; one of its largest employers, Preston Trucking Co. Inc., went bankrupt 2 1/2 years ago.
Caroline's average wealth per pupil - a measure of property values and residents' incomes - is $146,535, more than $115,000 below the state average and greater than only Baltimore's.
As a result, Caroline spends $6,376 per pupil, compared with the state average of $7,622. The highest-spending school system is Montgomery, at $10,201 per pupil.
"There just aren't many dollars in Caroline to go out and tax," says state Sen. Richard F. Colburn, an Eastern Shore Republican and town manager of the Caroline town of Federalsburg.
Though rural, Caroline has many of the ills of urban Maryland. About 40 percent of its pupils qualify for free- or reduced-price lunch - a commonly used measure of poverty. Statewide, the average is 30 percent.
Language and salaries
Moreover, the county's agricultural nature has attracted growing Latino immigration - much of it Guatemalan and Mexican - forcing teachers and administrators to quickly learn how to instruct children who don't speak English. One small elementary alone has 20 percent of the county's non-native English speakers
"A lot of people think that poverty is limited to the big, urban school areas, but it's a big challenge in rural Maryland, too," says Larry L. Lorton, Caroline's superintendent. "It's something our teachers have to struggle with."
Caroline's teachers also earn some of the lowest salaries in Maryland, less than their peers in neighboring Eastern Shore counties. "When teachers apply to the Shore, we're losing out because we pay the least," Lorton says. "We get good applicants because there's a lot of loyalty of people wanting to come back and teach in Caroline, but that can't go on forever."
Yet Caroline has racked up respectable academic achievements. On the most recent set of statewide exams, the county ranked 12th of the 24 systems, and since 1993 it has made the second-largest total gains, behind only Worcester County.
"It kind of puts us in a Catch-22," admits Caroline school board member Rebecca F. Loukides. "We do well with the few dollars that we have, and that leaves some people satisfied that we've been given enough."
Two decades ago, Caroline made the investment in installing full-day kindergarten countywide - something the Thornton Commission has called for in all systems. The county receives only enough state funding to pay for a half-day of instruction, a difference of about $300,000 a year.
But Brian T. Spiering, principal of North Caroline High School in Ridgely, sees areas in which the county has fallen behind. He worries there aren't enough Advanced Placement classes available to his college-bound students.
Says Spiering: "We end up teaching to the middle of the pack, not giving enough attention to the kids who are ahead and the ones who are struggling."
Minimum spent on education
To be sure, Caroline's tight school budgets aren't just a function of the county's poverty. In the past few years, Caroline's county commissioners have put as few dollars into education as permitted by state law - a level that most other counties call a minimum but Caroline politicians have been calling a maximum.
As a result, the percentage of county tax revenues that has gone to K-12 education has slipped from 59 percent in 1990 to 46 percent in 2001.
"We are not a carte blanche administration. We are not mean-spirited, but we are frugal," says county Commissioner Frank W. Prettyman. "We really don't have to apologize for that."
In the Maryland Poll conducted last month by Potomac Inc. for The Sun, voters of the Eastern Shore were almost evenly split on whether to support higher taxes to pay for the education - 47 percent in favor and 45 percent opposed. Statewide, Maryland voters favored raised taxes for public schools 52 percent to 40 percent.
Eastern Shore voters were more emphatic in their opposition to more aid to Baltimore's schools - 31 percent in favor, 50 percent opposed.
"People feel like Baltimore has gotten its money, and we seem to have to work extra hard just to get a few dollars," says Del. Adelaide C. Eckardt, an Eastern Shore Republican who represents part of Caroline.
To get more clout, Maryland's rural districts might turn to the courts if the General Assembly and governor fail to take significant action on the Thornton recommendations this year.
They did so with some success in the late 1970s, when Somerset County and a group of other small systems sued Maryland, claiming then that the state was failing its constitutional obligation to provide an adequate education for all children.
That also was the argument made by the Baltimore City school system and the American Civil Liberties Union in the 1990s, when they filed suits that led to a settlement worth hundreds of millions of extra state dollars for city schools.
Lorton, Caroline's superintendent, arrived in Maryland as superintendent of St. Mary's County in 1980, when that system was a plaintiff in the original rural lawsuit.
"There is no way that the rural school coalition can avoid considering litigation seriously if equity and adequacy are not addressed this year," Lorton says. "Nobody wants to go that route.
"But it's looking more and more like I began my education career in Maryland in litigation, and I could end my career that way, too."