As the school board continues combing through the hundreds of line items that make up this year's proposed $554 million operating budget, it is becoming apparent to members that assessment tests are the driving force behind many programs slated for approval.
For example, at the first budget work session held Tuesday, school board member Courtney Watson asked whether the administration would have requested 14 additional mathematics teachers for the 2006-2007 school year if assessment scores were not an issue.
The answer was immediate.
"That wouldn't be a hard answer. ... No, we wouldn't," said Sandra Erickson, the system's chief administrative and academic officer.
The response was similar during a discussion about funding for English for Speakers of Other Languages. Superintendent Sidney L. Cousin has requested 10 new employees and an increase of more than $700,000 in funding.
After board members questioned the need for community liaisons for the increasing number of foreign-born students in the county, Watson asked Bob Glascock, assistant superintendent for curriculum and instruction, whether assessment tests had anything to do with the push for ESOL funding.
"Yes," said Glascock, adding that all students take assessment tests.
Glascock said that the increased number of foreign-born students in the school system - officials said more than 66 languages are spoken in the schools - has made it crucial to maintain liaisons.
"The need for a person to be a conduit is more apparent," Glascock said.
In fact, board members used the work session to scrutinize virtually every aspect of instruction, which represents 44.8 percent of the proposed budget, said board Chairman Joshua Kaufman.
And that's just the start.
At least three more sessions will be held this month, leading to adoption of the budget by the board, scheduled for May 23.
Other sessions will address funds budgeted for operation of plants, maintenance, administration, pupil personnel, special education and health.
Meanwhile, the PTA Council of Howard County has endorsed Cousin's budget plan and urged board members to preserve funding for maintenance, nurses and physical education staffing.
Under the proposed budget, maintenance funding would increase by $2.8 million to $17.1 million.
"For many, many years maintenance has always been one of the areas that they have cut when they trimmed down the budget," PTA President Mary Jane Grauso said at Thursday's board meeting. "With us building these new schools, it is important to keep our schools maintained the best we can."
Cousin's plan would also increase health services by more than 11 percent to $4.4 million.
"We are getting more and more children that need more attention," Grauso said. "We need more nurses to help with the school ratios."
She added that concerns about child obesity and nutrition led the group to support physical education.
"As the kids progress through the school system, the older you get the less physical education you get," she said, adding that the PTA wanted to make sure programs such as dance were funded.
New meeting format
A new meeting format will allow school board members to get more in-depth reports during board sessions.
"What we decided was that we lacked a structured setting to have a more in-depth discussion with staff," said Kaufman. "This is a way to have longer reports and more question and answer."
On Jan. 26, board members received an update on the state of mathematics programs in the system.
Every other board meeting will feature a similar in-depth report on a specific topic. The in-depth report will take place during the evening portion of the meeting.
The next board meeting with an in-depth report will be held Feb. 23.
The subject has not been determined.