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Board keeps program for ninth-graders

An effort to rescind a requirement that ninth-grade students pass a "freshman seminar" before being promoted failed yesterday to gain the approval of Carroll school board members, who promised to end the years-long debate over the issue.

Discussion over a recommendation from the school system's top administrators that the ninth-grade transition course no longer be required ended in a tie vote, meaning that the measure failed.

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Designed to improve achievement, ambition and involvement in extracurricular activities among ninth-graders, freshman seminar includes lessons on study skills, research tips and career advice. Proponents, including high school principals, say the class eases the transition to high school and gives students tools for success in school. But critics have argued that the course is repetitive, unnecessary and boring for successful students.

One of the two board members who voted to keep the class as a requirement for all ninth-graders said she did so though she did not entirely support the program. Laura K. Rhodes said she voted to keep the program because school administrators did not have a plan that would otherwise incorporate the skills into the curriculum.

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"Consider yourselves given five years and a gift," Rhodes said, looking at high school principals seated in the board room and referring to remarks that it takes about five years to iron out the kinks in most new classes or initiatives. "I'm not happy with this, but I'm unwilling to go from the pan to the fire."

Board President Susan G. Holt, who has long opposed requiring students to take the half-credit class, told the principals, "I hope you make it strong for the sake of the kids who get stuck taking it. I hope you can get your staffs to jump on."

With board member Gary W. Bauer absent from yesterday's meeting, the vote on freshman seminar was a tie with Rhodes and C. Scott Stone voting against a recommendation to rescind the promotion requirement and Holt and Thomas G. Hiltz casting votes in favor of it.

First introduced five years ago at Westminster High School and implemented at all county high schools last year as a prerequisite for 10th grade, freshman seminar has been the subject of debate by board members on a nearly annual basis. The state Education Department recognized Sherri-Le W. Bream for developing the program while principal at Westminster High, and troupes of educators from across the state have visited the county to model their versions of the course.

Yesterday's vote occurred after a heated discussion during which two high school principals and two other administrators expressed support for the class and one parent complained that the seminar was a waste of her daughter's time.

Calling freshman seminar "the foundation" for many programs and initiatives at the high school level, Bream, now principal of Winters Mill High, told the board, "I find it hard to believe that after so many people have worked diligently to refine this course and taken every suggestion offered to make it better that we would, as a county, on an annual basis, look to break apart what so many people have worked to build."

But Holt framed the debate as a tug-of-war between school administrators and a majority of parents, students and instructors who teach the course and oppose it.

"Faculties in school sent e-mails to remove it as a promotion requirement," Holt said. "If you take a tally of the community - and that's not how I make my decisions - more people are in favor of removing it as a promotion requirement. ... "

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George Phillips, principal of South Carroll High School, acknowledged that his son was among those who objected to the orientations and instruction on time management and decision making in a course designed to improve achievement, involvement and ambition among ninth-graders.

"He said it was a waste of his time," Phillips said. "I said, 'You didn't get a choice about a tetanus shot, but it was good for you.' Sometimes educators have to tell parents and kids what's good for them."

Board members Holt and Hiltz promised after yesterday's vote that they would not reignite debate on the issue during their terms on the board.

In other business, the board also:

Approved a $114.4 million, six-year school construction budget that includes money for the renovation of three aging elementary schools, a modernization and fine arts addition for South Carroll High and implementation of a state-required all-day kindergarten program.

Asked in an interview whether county taxpayers could afford the school system's capital budget, Carroll Budget Director Ted Zaleski said, "It is difficult to think we could in any prudent way actually fund this."

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School officials will send the spending request by Wednesday to the county commissioners, who typically consider the request as they work on a budget proposal between November and March.

Agreed to ask the county's legislative delegation to support a bill that would more than double board members' annual compensation, from $3,000 to $6,500, and raise the board president's yearly salary from $3,500 to $7,000. The raises would not affect sitting board members but would go into effect, if approved, for newly elected members.

The legislation would make the Carroll board the second-highest-paid among elected school boards in the school systems with which Carroll administrators often compare themselves - Charles, Frederick, Howard and Washington counties, according to a chart provided by the superintendent.

Approved a new ethics policy that requires board members and employees to submit more-detailed disclosures of gifts and private business holdings than they have filed in the past and that includes new requirements for the school board's five-member ethics panel. The policy goes into effect Jan. 1.

Received an update from Superintendent Charles I. Ecker on the budget outlook for the fiscal year that begins in July. Ecker estimated that the school system will receive about $13 million in new revenue next year and said he expects slightly less than $13 million in new expenses.

That does not take into account any employee raises, he added. A 1 percent salary increase for all employees would cost about $1.5 million, and funding the annual raises built into the salary scale would cost $2.5 million, Ecker said. The board approved a $224.6 million operating budget last year that included the equivalent of a 2 percent raise for teachers, principals, administrators, nurses, secretaries and instructional assistants, and 3 percent pay increases for food service workers, maintenance staff, custodians and bus drivers.


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