Council scolds school leaders

The Baltimore Sun

Angry County Council members yesterday accused the Anne Arundel County school system of vilifying the county government for the superintendent's proposal to leave 200 teaching positions unfilled, with the council chairwoman blasting school officials for running "one hell of a PR [public relations] scam."

"Whoever's doing your PR over there is doing one heck of a job, not a fair one, but a good job," Council Chairwoman Cathleen M. Vitale scolded the district's top business and human resources officials. "I'm wondering when I will see the press release that says the superintendent cut 200 positions ... so [he] can move forward with other non-core programs and initiatives."

In the last few weeks, County Council members have received a barrage of e-mails and letters from parents, teachers and students who urged the county government to approve Superintendent Kevin M. Maxwell's request for a $100 million increase, so that schools won't be left with 200 vacancies and class sizes won't swell.

Maxwell announced the possible cuts last month as a way to weather a particularly austere budget year and help the district save about $12 million.

Council members insisted they funded 294 new teaching positions last year, and it was the school district's decision to use the money in other ways and pull the funding from such a controversial area as classroom teachers.

"So, even though we told you we want you to use [funding] for teachers, you used it for other things?" Councilman Edward R. Reilly asked the school system's assistant superintendent Gregory V. Nourse, budget director Susan Bowen and human resources director Florie Bozzella.

"We have gotten very little from the school board, which I'm not very happy about," continued Reilly, who called the meeting. "Wish we would've gotten some of the numbers before the news outlets."

The sharp rebuke was another hallmark of the strained relationship between school system officials and the county government -- each of whom blames the other for not communicating enough and using alarmist tactics to manipulate the budget process. The county government has also felt pressure from local unions after the superintendent said in January he didn't believe the district would be able to honor negotiated agreements because County Executive John R. Leopold's staff had told the school system it could not afford the $72 million necessary for promised raises.

The district routinely loses more than 600 teachers through attrition every year. The positions proposed for cuts don't reflect layoffs but instead are staff members whom schools would have lost naturally through resignations and retirements anyway. What has riled parents this year, however, is the district's plan to not refill those positions, which could force class sizes to grow by one to seven students.

"We were just trying to be as proactive as possible," said Nourse, assistant superintendent of business and management.

"Rather than give [schools] allocations that we might need to take back," Nourse said, the district decided to inform schools of the possibility that they might lose positions. Under the information shared with principals last month, 54 elementary, 16 middle and 11 high schools would lose staff.

"Did a handful of principals share some misinformation? Yes," Nourse said. "And our human resources division is working hard to ... correct that."

As Nourse and human resources head Bozzella tried to explain their reasoning, some council members seemed uninterested -- or perhaps unconvinced. Vitale chatted away on a cell phone while the school officials spoke, and on different occasions Councilmen Jamie Benoit and Ronald C. Dillon Jr. stepped out of the chambers.

During the past three weeks, a grass-roots letter-writing campaign was launched in several schools. Parents met on playgrounds and school libraries and cafeterias to hammer out strategies for bombarding the County Council, Leopold, school board members and local media with letters of protest. They printed fliers and pamphlets with information on the budget. They are planning to speak before the school board tonight and into May.

At Riviera Beach Elementary, 50 parents at a meeting last week were given form letters to entice busy parents to participate without having to worry about the wording.

Clarissa Keefe, who has children in kindergarten and second grade at the Pasadena school, was one of the parents at the Riviera Beach meeting.

"We just want every child to get the quality of education they deserve," she said."

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