Spring break may be reduced


The Howard County Board of Education voted last night to make up any coming snow days during spring break and concluded that efforts to improve an inaccurate student-enrollment projection process may be futile.

Howard has used nine snow days this winter. Five were automatically added to the end of the school calendar, and last night the board decided to do the same with a sixth day as well, making the last day of school June 20 instead of June 12.

The Maryland State Department of Education granted school systems permission to waive two of the 180 required days of instruction to make up for lost time, and the school system plans to accept the waivers, leaving one day.

That ninth day will be made up March 14, the board decided. The date had been set aside as a staff development day. Job training and education were planned for 4,400 of the county's educators. The day will be spent in class, instead.

"There's a lot of disappointment," said Robert Glascock, the assistant superintendent for curriculum and instruction, who spent many hours arranging the events, "but we understand it's an unusual year."

Superintendent John R. O'Rourke warned that the worst might be yet to come.

"Historically, March is not a kind month," he said.

If any other snow days occur, the first will be made up April 14 - the first day of spring break. April 15 and 16 have also been set aside as snow make-up days if needed.

The State Department of Education had suggested that days be made up during three state-mandated holidays - Good Friday, Easter Monday and Memorial Day - but board members decided too many contractual obligations would be broken if that were to happen.

The board also heard a report by David C. Drown, the schools systems coordinator of geographic systems and the main organizer of school redistricting efforts.

Drown said that while the enrollment projection process has been revamped after scathing criticism, it's not much better.

"I don't think we're any better, but I don't think we're any worse," Drown said.

Student enrollment projections are among the most important figures produced in Howard County.

They determine the pace of development and predict school resource needs. Because of inaccurate projections in recent years, the school board is facing the task of quickly financing construction of several schools.

Some critics have said the model the school system has been using is not doing the job, and a 2-year old review concluded that new software was needed that factored in housing- and birth-rate data along with a new process.

Drown asserted that the data he has collected shows that even with improvements, such as more collaborative efforts with outside agencies, improved spreadsheets, better organization and niftier tools, the rate of error is likely to be the same as it has always been.

The board found the news heartening though after Drown told them that by his calculation the school system was well within, and even under, the normal rate of deviation in such predictions.

"The margins of error may not work for planning and growth, but they do work for the school system," said board member Courtney Watson, who campaigned for her position on a platform that included calling for better projections.

"This is the first time we've had an analysis that showed certain industry standard margins of error," Watson said. "I'm not sure we can get any better."

Drown said he compared margins of error by consulting with other regions. He said he had determined that the Howard projections were about as accurate as those of the other schools - 1 percent for net error and 5 percent for marginal error.

The board said this should quiet the many critics it has had over the years, such as those in the Department of Planning and Zoning and the Adequate Public Facilities Committee, which look to the numbers to determine development.

"The problem is they don't want projections," said board member Virginia Charles. "What they want is a count."

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