As year begins, a hope for calm

The Baltimore Sun

After a year that included a student bringing a gun to school, the arrest of four teachers and the killing of a former student on a high school football field, Howard County school officials are looking for a far calmer time in 2007-2008.

But past problems are likely to resurface throughout the academic year. The the criminal cases against the teachers are continuing through the legal system, and the capital budget process has the potential to be contentious, especially over the fate of Mount Hebron High School.

Officials say they are focused on the year at hand and that the Howard County school system remains top-notch.

"I still know that this is a terrific place to live, raise kids and to have them educated in our schools," Superintendent Sydney L. Cousin said.

Cousin said he will spend this school year focused on decreasing the achievement gap among students and approving the capital and operating budgets.

Assessment tests, school policies and a capital budget are the top priorities this year for Diane Mikulis, chairman of the county Board of Education.

"I think there is going to be a lot of emphasis put on testing," Mikulis said. "I'm sure we will look at the student groups who are not performing. We want to teach them and make sure they learn better."

Mikulis said the board also will examine anti-bullying and civility policies.

Unlike last year, Cousin said, the first day of school this year was free of problems.

"There was nothing systemic," he said.

Last year, school started on a sour note when students at Reservoir High School did not get their class schedules in time for the start of school after officials had worked throughout the summer trying to correct problems with the Student Management System. Even after they received their schedules, some students complained that their classes were not correct.

The management system remains a concern for the school system. The school board is determining how to collect student data in the future, Mikulis said.

Cost estimates for a new student data program range from $5 million to $13 million.

One major capital budget concern is Mount Hebron High School in Ellicott City, which has been at the center of a debate over whether to renovate or replace it.

Recently, parents at the school were outraged when they discovered an April 2006 report that recommended major additions or the construction of a new school.

The parents --- who obtained the report under the Freedom Of Information Act -- say school officials never shared the information with them and appeared to be attempting to hide it.

Parents want full disclosure of the decision-making process, said Cindy Ardinger, vice president of the Mount Hebron PTSA and of the Help Mount Hebron Committee, a school improvement group.

"I was frustrated that it was never shown to us," she said.

Numerous reports are generated through the course of a school improvement, Mikulis said, and not all reports are shared with the public.

"I don't think that there was a conscious effort to hide anything," Mikulis said.

Cousin said the school system did nothing "sinister" with the April 2006 report. He had never seen the report before being approached by the Mount Hebron parents, he said.

"For every single project we have preliminary reports," said Cousin, who toured the school with County Executive Ken Ulman on Monday. "I don't get to see all of those reports."

Ardinger said her group wants top school system officials to put together a compilation of suggestions for the school generated from four reports -- including the one from April 2006 -- that have been created for the school construction project.

Cousin favors a $49.8 million renovation plan that would include mechanical upgrades, full systemic renovations and an expansion of the school's art, athletic and administrative offices. Many parents and most Mount Hebron staff members want a new school, which could cost nearly twice as much as Cousin's plan.

"We've already begun to hear from Atholton," Mikulis said of parents who also want improvements at their school. "We've got a whole capital budget to look at. Mount Hebron is certainly going to be part of that."

Cousin will unveil his capital budget recommendations Sept. 6. A public hearing on the budget will be held Sept. 20. The school board is scheduled to approve the capital budget on Oct. 1.

"We are going to be grappling with capital budget concerns," Mikulis said. "We know the money is going to be tight."

Cousin agreed. "I think this is going to be a challenging year as far as the budget is concerned," he said.

Parents were concerned not only about the condition of schools last year, but also about the safety of their children.

In highly publicized arrests, three teachers were charged in separate incidents with having improper sexual contact with students, and a veteran teacher was charged with possession of crack cocaine on school property.

On Jan. 25, Robert Brazell, 18, who had recently dropped out of Mount Hebron High School, died after being beaten with an aluminum baseball bat during a late-night fight involving dozens of youths on a field at the school. Kevin Klink, 18, a 2006 graduate of Oakland Mills High, was charged with murder in Brazell's death.

Although neither Klink nor Brazell was enrolled in Howard County schools, several teenagers at the fight--- including two taken to the hospital with injuries -- attended county high schools.

Days before the end of academic year in June, a 15-year-old was charged with taking a semiautomatic handgun and an ammunition clip to his high school.

The school system's new-teacher orientation this month offered a session on appropriate teacher behavior with students, according to Mikulis. In addition, follow-up sessions will be held at the school level.

"We certainly don't want anything like that happening again," she said.

"It's because of our vigilance that many of these cases came forward," Cousin said about the teachers accused of having inappropriate relations with students. "It's better that they come forward than be hidden."

Cousin and Mikulis said they want to reassure residents that students are safe in the school system.

"Without a doubt," Cousin said. "We make that our highest priority.

"We are going to continue to be vigilant and make sure we have a safe and healthy, nurturing environment for our kids," Cousin said.

john-john.williams@baltsun.com

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