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Baltimore County Council oversteps its role with schools | COMMENTARY

Baltimore County Council is considering a resolution that would extend the deadline to pass legislation.
Baltimore County Council is considering a resolution that would extend the deadline to pass legislation.

The Baltimore County Council is expected to offer some level of financial oversight of the county’s school system, its superintendent and governing board, particularly as budget time approaches. Asking questions, debating spending requests, even having conversations about sensitive issues like school redistricting or renovation priorities, all are part of the normal back and forth. But recently, the council dispatched a letter to the school system that should raise some hackles. It was not typical of the customary give and take. It was certainly cordial enough (there was no name-calling or direct threats). But where it went astray was in attempting to set COVID-19-related educational policy for Baltimore County Public Schools.

The letter, signed by all seven council members, essentially attempts to put the County Council in charge of summer school. It states, without equivocation, that Superintendent Darryl L. Williams and Board of Education Chair Makeda Scott are expected to present to them by Friday, April 16, a plan for a “rigorous” in-person Monday-through-Friday summer instruction program to help students who “lost valuable face-to-face instructional time during the COVID-19 pandemic.” And it not so subtly reminds them that budget time approaches — and that their answers will be factored into the May budget hearings and how much the school system gets from the county for the Fiscal 2022 school year.

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Now, it’s almost certain that expanded summer school is an appropriate choice. Superintendent Williams has already said he’s in the process of formulating a plan for summer learning beyond what’s been done in the past. But the County Council should not be the ones to dictate terms. Nor necessarily even to pay for it since, as the letter even notes, the school system is already getting financial help from the American Rescue Plan, the stimulus bill signed into law by President Joe Biden two weeks ago. What council members seem to be saying is that if Superintendent Williams doesn’t follow their lead, he can expect his budget to be treated more harshly in the coming year. In legislative terms, this is called hostage taking. Do what we say and nobody gets hurt.

This level of polite antagonism (the letter starts without a thank you to “our Baltimore County educators for adapting to an unprecedented learning environment”) is not completely surprising. There’s a lot of friction going around BCPS these days, especially within a school board that remains bitterly divided after a prolonged leadership fight. And it’s safe to assume that council members are getting calls from a lot of unhappy parents, including some who mistakenly believe schools should never have been closed in the first place. Virtual learning has had its successes and failures. Tensions are high. The pandemic has been tough on families. It’s been tough on teachers, too.

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But as frustrating as it might be for the County Council to believe themselves out of the loop, some boundaries need to be maintained. It’s the school board’s job to oversee educational policy. And while we appreciate that County Council members believe they should have been told more about the BCPS ransomware attack last fall, their beef should probably be directed toward the FBI. Superintendent Williams has repeatedly said he’s been told by federal investigators not to discuss the ongoing investigation. Does the County Council has some reason to believe Superintendent Williams has been untruthful about that? If so, they ought to state their case.

Here’s an idea. Instead of firing off letters, why don’t County Council members pick up their taxpayer-financed telephones and give a call to the school system and school board and talk informally about their concerns? They might just discover that Superintendent Williams and Ms. Scott share many of them. And, incidentally, we might suggest the same to the county’s low-profile superintendent, who might want to invest more time in outreach of his own. Whether he recognizes it or not, there’s a certain amount of political care and feeding that comes with the job for which he was hired less than two years ago. All superintendents need political allies.

The worry here is not so much whether Baltimore County will have an adequate summer school program or not. It probably will. The concern is that members of the County Council may be emboldened to go further and, perhaps align themselves with disaffected school board members and go about micromanaging educational policy far beyond the pandemic or supplemental programs. That would be bad for students, parents, teachers, county residents and taxpayers alike.

The Baltimore Sun editorial board — made up of Opinion Editor Tricia Bishop, Deputy Editor Andrea K. McDaniels and writer Peter Jensen — offers opinions and analysis on news and issues relevant to readers. It is separate from the newsroom.

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