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Letters to the Editor

THE BALTIMORE SUN

Pendergrass bill needs more study

After much thought and deliberation, I would like to express my opinion on a subject of major importance to the residents of Columbia. I have followed the discussion concerning HB 567 very carefully and I am disturbed by the divisive nature of this debate.

I am opposed to the timing of HB 567, which changes the voting procedure needed to amend the Columbia Association's covenants. While I understand and support the concept behind this legislation, I also believe we need more time to study the issue before any specific changes are made.

The Columbia Association Board of Directors and a majority of the village boards voted to oppose this legislation after Del. Shane Pendergrass [a Howard Democrat], sponsor of the bill, denied their request to postpone this bill for further study. I believe this request was both reasonable and necessary, and I also believe this request should have been honored. I am confident that further discussion will prevent any unintended consequences that may adversely impact the future of Columbia. Change is often good, but judicious change is always better.

To this end, I am asking Delegate Pendergrass to reconsider her decision and postpone this legislation until next year. I would like to propose the creation of a task force to study the process and impact of any voting procedure change. Task force members should include one representative from each of Columbia's ten villages and one member appointed by the Columbia Association management. Public input should be encouraged and the task force should report their findings at a public hearing at the end of a specified term.

The task force may well determine that HB 567, as written, is sufficient, but that determination should only be made after a careful review and thoughtful discussion by Columbia residents.

The task force will provide a framework for cooperation, consensus and positive change; hallmarks of the very foundation on which Columbia was built. I hope you will support my effort to restore reason to this debate and harmony to the villages of Columbia.

I welcome any comments, suggestions, or questions you might have.

Sen. Sandra B. Schrader

Howard County, Republican, District 13

CA board members, top staff at odds

Columbia Association Board Chair Miles Coffman claims we on the board regularly "beat up on" members of the staff, but he has that backwards. Moreover, his timing of last Thursday's consideration of allegations against me by CA's President was not in the interest of Columbians as a whole.

The board has been dealing with the most complex budget process in decades, and the time could thus have been better spent. We have a first-time multi-year budget. We have staff proposing a high, 8.5 percent increase in operating expenses when inflation is under 2 percent. And most importantly, we have a popular "caps" bill filed by Del. Pendergrass with a potential $5 million-plus impact on the budget. Plenty to discuss. Some of the allegations against me go back as much as ten months, and Ms. Brown wrote Mr. Coffman before Christmas. Except to distract board and public, I do not understand Mr. Coffman's haste.

Aptly scheduled or not, with Mr. Coffman's prospect or not, Thursday's discussion did surface the real issue. It is not that I verbally harassed any staff members, which I did not, but that the senior staff, far from being "beat up on" have and exhibit a nasty attitude toward many members of the unpaid board.

We on the board each spend 15 or 20 hours during a typical week on CA business. That includes reading reports, attending Council and Board meetings, CA committee meetings, village board meetings, and meeting in person with members of the community we serve plus e-mails and phone calls. None of us has to. None of us gets paid. We do it for the community.

Yet, as pointed out by my friends on the Board, we are frequently met by staff stonewalling on requests for information, muttered comment by staff at board meetings and sometimes more. The senior staff -- and I am referring to the President, VPs and Division Directors, not the folk who clear snow, mow lawns and clean gyms -- are highly paid and eager to keep their comfortable and well-paid positions. They look at the volunteer board as interlopers. A recent set of shameful verbal assaults on a board member show staff's attitude.

Staff misbehavior rarely becomes public, because the board must discuss it, if at all, in closed sessions as a personnel matter. Apparently board members are one down from the staff, because one-sided allegation against a board member like me can be brought up by the Chair in public if he wants to.

That is backwards. We board members represent the owners of CA facilities who pay for the construction, upkeep and operations, and ought to control the staff. Instead, the president, a paid staff member, can attack a board member who crosses her, and protect a staff member against a board member. This state of affairs is wrong and must end. And we board members need to stick up for each other and ourselves, and for the good people of Columbia.

Philip L. Marcus

Columbia

The writer represents Kings Contrivance on the Columbia Association board.

Grade-changing still an open issue

It is now mid-February and the Howard County School System still has not rendered final decisions, recommendations or disclosures with regard to two separate cases of alleged improper grade changes at two county high schools occurring in early fall of 2003.

The cases are similar yet very different. In the case of Centennial High School, it is alleged and reported that high ranking central office personnel may have influenced the changing of a related student's grade. This was initially reported in the fall, yet no decision or recommendation has apparently been forwarded to the Board and no actions toward the responsible parties are publicly known despite an investigation costing a reported $40,000.

In the case of Oakland Mills High School, the football coach was immediately relieved of all his duties, including those as an AP social studies teacher, pending an investigation that would take months. His punishment was well-documented in the press, and this teacher was held out to be the primary or lone participant in a scheme that was to include athletic participation by a multitude of ineligible students and grade changing. I supposed we are to believe he crawled through the school's duct work at night to gain access to carefully guarded student records in a Mission Impossible-like manner. We can call this version "Mission Ineligible."

Discussions about reinstatement of the coach's teaching position are apparently under way. If and when the process is completed, the school system should acknowledge, for the peace of mind of all the dedicated teachers that offer their time to coach or serve as Athletic Directors, that it was wrong for this coach to have been removed from the classroom without pay. Without doing so, these teachers could very well question whether they are putting their paying jobs in jeopardy by coaching.

The incidents at the two schools in question have not been dealt with in the same manner and both situations still await the final decision and recommendation of the Superintendent. The students, teachers and parents of Howard County are still waiting.

Skip Shepherd

Columbia

In support of bills to better Columbia

Without doubt, I firmly support in principle Delegate Shane Pendergrass' two important bills that affect Columbia's property owners with respect to the annual CA fee and the CA covenants.

There is no question in my mind that we need and require now outside intervention from the state legislature in making two important changes. I have very serious doubt, more so than ever before, that Columbia property owners will get any help from the CA Board on an annual cap on the CA fee. In addition, there is no way that the CA Board can provide any help at all in providing a more democratic way to change the CA covenants that now require a 100 percent approval from all property owners. Even our U.S. Constitution only requires 75 percent approval of the state legislatures to add an amendment.

Due to the recent escalation in property values of 30 percent to 50 percent, Columbia property owners need a 10 percent annual cap with a 3-year phase-in on the CA fee. Since a 5 percent cap with a 3-year phase-in has worked and is acceptable for Howard County property taxes, I would think the 10 percent cap should be fine in Columbia. If this bill cannot fly with a retroactive provision, I would still support it and hope some other form of tax relief would be available as a credit or rebate for the higher CA assessments paid in 2003.

With respect to changing the covenants, I would support a petition with a minimum of 10 percent of the property owners signing. However, I would prefer to see a higher percent approval than 51 percent of those voting to pass a covenant change. A two-thirds majority approval is more plausible with a minimum number of votes.

There is no doubt that the climate at Columbia Association has changed significantly in the last five years for the worse. In addition, it sure seems that the Columbia property owners are more serving Columbia Association desires rather than the other way around.

It is, therefore, time for some positive changes for Columbia property owners and these two bills if enacted would go a long way in this regard. Each bill is independent of the other, and I see no reason why they should not be introduced at the same legislative session.

Richard Tobin

Columbia

Seniors need affordable housing

There are many advocates for affordable housing in Howard County. A common misconception is that it concerns primarily those who want to buy.

The huge increases in property assessments have resulted in placing the 33,000 seniors 60 years or older in Howard County in jeopardy of not being able to afford the homes in which they live. Eighty-seven percent own their homes.

I believe my case is typical. In the 13 years I have been retired, my property assessment has increased 552 percent. This bubble will break. Seniors have spent their lives emphasizing the relationship between price and value. For security we have invested our retirement funds in FDIC accounts which now pay less than 1 percent because the government has reduced the loan interest rates for borrowing money to encourage people to incur cheap debt and pay more for housing.

Seniors need a reduced rate on their assessments. It is no accident that Zoning Regulations make an exemption for senior housing with the Adequate Facilities legislation. Seniors are not a drain on county resources. It's time to stop the actions which are leading toward property confiscation.

Donald Dunn

Ellicott City

Moxley should fund Oella improvements

Now that Baltimore County Council Chairman Stephen G. Samuel Moxley has circumvented existing zoning laws by gaining passage of a bill he introduced on behalf of Forest City Residential Group of Cleveland, that allows the conversion of the Oella Mill into 175 apartments, ("Balto. County Council OKs turning mill into housing," The Sun, Feb. 15) perhaps he can serve his Oella constituents by providing the following items the community will now need:

A stoplight at the intersection of Frederick Road and Oella Avenue to ease the already heavy traffic flow at the entrance to our community.

An emergency response plan for gaining access to Oella after the inevitable head-on collision at the one-lane-wide S-curve on lower Oella Avenue.

Funding for a sidewalk along Oella Avenue to the Mill since the residents will no longer be able to safely walk to Ellicott City due to the increased traffic.

Geoffrey S. Baker Ann Hackeling

Ellicott City

Readers criticize article about ski trip

Committee regulates student trips abroad

It is important for parents to understand the distinction between commercially sponsored trips and trips that are sanctioned by the Howard County Department of Education for educational purposes ("Border incident delays ski trip," Feb. 17).

In order to set the record straight, there is a proposed slate of foreign trips that has been approved by the Foreign Travel Study Committee of the Department of Education of Howard County. This committee, which has been in existence for 30 years, reviews applications for trips and the leaders from the Howard County Public Schools staff who lead them.

Trips are governed by very strict guidelines, based on a criteria set up by BOE policies and procedures in a Handbook published by the committee. The commercially sponsored ski trip was never sanctioned by us, nor should students have been recruited in our schools or on our school grounds.

Even though stated in the article, I must emphasize this. Were parents misled into thinking that the guidelines would be strictly enforced to protect their children or that the school had some control? The results don't indicate it, nor did the deluge of phone calls to the school in response to the article and other media coverage pertaining to the incident.

We have procedures for violations of Department of Education policies while abroad. Basically, a student is held to the same behavioral standards abroad as if it were an extension of the physical classroom. If an infraction is discovered (drug possession, for example) the student would have been subject to severe consequences.

We require an extensive orientation program prior to departure that deals with our policies and student responsibility and accountability. We also provide competent adult chaperoning by tenured staff members. We can't guarantee a perfect experience. Nobody can, if students choose to be irresponsible.

Fake IDs, etc., indicate that the intent of this trip for a large number of its participants may have been for more than just skiing, and it put the good kids at jeopardy of far more serious consequences had they been caught in the presence of confiscated contraband while abroad. Don't confuse these programs with our legitimate educational programs, which are tightly supervised.

The last point I would like to make is based on my status as a teacher at Howard High School. When you refer to students from Howard County in your articles and headlines in the future, please write "Howard County" throughout the article and not just "Howard." It is implied when you say "Howard student" that you are identifying students who exclusively attend our school. A few students from Howard High School were involved, but most were students from other schools. I certainly hope that the quote attributed to the PTA president at Howard High School was inaccurate because this incident is "different than a typical day at Howard (High School)."

It is clear that some students didn't take full responsibility on this commercially sponsored ski trip, willfully choosing to disregard their signed waiver not to bring contraband, and subject everyone else to a search and subsequent delay. Since these were predominantly not Howard High School students, a statement like this made about our school deserves at the very least an apology to our school and community for his poor choice of words and at most, the resignation of the PTA presidency if that is his perception of our students.

In short, it was upsetting to a significant sampling of the student body.

Robert C. Nykyforchyn

Ellicott City

The writer is chairman of the Foreign Travel Study Committee, Howard County Department of Education.

Parents, students blamed for problems

In the Feb. 17 article titled, "Border Incident Delays Ski Trip," Gus Sentementes and Tricia Bishop reported that a ski trip involving 592 students from the Howard County area were involved in a border incident with Canadian Officials. The authors of this article then state, "Although not a sanctioned school event, it was another embarrassment for Howard students and school system after a string of incidents since August. ..."

I would like to contend this point in the article. How is this an embarrassment for the Howard County School System? This trip was organized by a Northern Virginia business whose intention was to make a profit. It was held on a four-day weekend when school was not in session. The trip was chaperoned by staff members of Travel Unlimited, not teachers. This trip had no affiliation with the school system whatsoever. What should have been written is that this was another embarrassment for Howard County teen-agers and their parents. After all, it was the parents and students who signed the agreements with the company. It was the parents whose responsibility it was to prepare their children for this trip. It was the parents' responsibilities to shape their moral character.

If Howard County teen-agers are acting like the rules don't apply to them, it is because the people who most greatly influence their development are allowing (and in some cases, promoting) this attitude to develop. I don't understand the need for this venomous snipe at the school system by Mr. Sentementes and Ms. Bishop, but I do think that it is easier to blame a non-entity then it is to place the blame where it truly belongs: with the people who buy your newspaper.

Tim Pruett

Ellicott City

Students mislabeled by poor writing

As a senior at Howard High School and a teen-ager who attended Ski Travel Unlimited's ski trip to Canada, I am shocked and offended by what I read in this article ("Border incident delays ski trip," Feb. 17). For starters, throughout the article "Howard" is used to describe "Howard County," misleading the reader to believe that the statements are about Howard High School students.

For example, "It was another embarrassment for Howard students and school system after a string of incidents since August..." The paragraph goes on to mention several controversial events that have taken place at Howard County schools this year. However, since only "Howard," is used in the sentence, the reader is led to believe that the events took place at Howard High School, when in fact none of them did.

It seems as though the only time that Howard High is featured in The Sun is when something is going wrong. There are plenty of good things happening at the county's original high school, including an award winning It's Academic team and music department. As an editor of my school's journalism class, I was very disappointed by the way this article was written. In the future, it would be nice to see the positives about Howard High written in The Sun, not just the negatives.

Mike Bisson

Ellicott City

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