The Baltimore County school system, the nation's 25th largest, is working to meet the needs of a changing population.
A major challenge is improving the academic performance of the system's growing minority student population. A report released this spring showed students of all races making academic progress by many measures, but wide gaps in the achievement and suspension rates between whites and minorities remain.
The school system's minority population has grown from 22 percent of total enrollment in the 1990-1991 academic year to 44 percent of enrollment in 2003-2004. At the same time, school system officials say, student performance today is at its highest level in the history of the 108,000-student system.
"The challenge is to continue the unprecedented growth in achievement that we've had for every child," said school board President James R. Sasiadek.
Like school districts across the country, Baltimore County is focused on complying with the federal No Child Left Behind Act, which requires annual progress toward the goal of having all children demonstrate proficiency on standardized tests by 2014.
More immediately, the law requires that all teachers be "highly qualified" by next year. To meet that goal, the Baltimore County system has limited teachers' ability to transfer to other schools within the system.
A teacher who meets the complex definition of "highly qualified" under No Child Left Behind cannot transfer from a low-performing school or "Title 1" school - one serving poor children - unless there is a "highly qualified" replacement. The teachers union argued unsuccessfully during contract negotiations to have the rule lifted.
County school system officials are taking many steps to court teachers, including recruiting trips abroad and partnering with colleges and universities to train people changing careers.
The county's 12-member school board, which includes one student member, began to show signs of division after the appointment of four new members last summer by Republican Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. The majority of the other board members were appointed by former Gov. Parris N. Glendening, a Democrat.
Ehrlich is expected to make two more appointments to the board this summer.
Dissatisfied with Ehrlich's appointments from last year, Democratic state senators introduced a bill this winter to require Senate confirmation of the governor's appointments. After the bill died, Sen. Delores G. Kelley vowed to introduce a bill next session calling for an elected board.
Another significant challenge for the board is meeting the system's facilities needs. Baltimore County has the second-oldest stock of school buildings in Maryland, and it is in the middle of a system-wide renovation project. Meanwhile, the county is seeing significant growth in the Owings Mills and White Marsh areas, resulting in a need for new school buildings. The needs compete with one another, as state money for school construction has been limited in recent years and the board tries to build the bank of land it has available for new schools.
There has been a community push for a new high school to relieve crowding in Perry Hall, Towson and other communities in the northeastern and central areas of the county. Some of Ehrlich's appointees to the board have been vocal in their support for a new high school, and a report by a consultant hired by the system recommended a new school.
Smith not in agreement
But County Executive James T. Smith Jr., whose support would be necessary to fund the project, has maintained that a new school is not necessary.
The board also faces a long-running conflict with the county's Muslim community, which wants the system to close schools on its two most important holidays, just as schools close for the Jewish holidays of Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur. The Muslim community has turned out in force at every school board meeting for the past year and a half.