Category Archives: Education

Education Politics

By Barry Rascovar

Dec. 14, 2015 – He masks it well, but Gov. Larry Hogan, Jr. plays a good game of partisan politics. Behind that smile and friendly voice is a fierce Republican eager to further the conservative cause.

Education is a prime example of Hogan’s conservative partisanship trumping over sound public policy.

First, he needlessly nixed $68 million in education aid to 14 high-cost subdivisions, basing his action on the false premise that this money was needed to bolster the state’s pension fund. (The money instead sat unused in the state treasury.)

He tossed a bunch of moderate non-partisans off the Baltimore County school board and named one replacement who is an outspoken social conservative with views on public education that are far from mainstream.

Then he announced a surprise gift of $5.6 million to three Republican-voting counties to help them with their loss of state funds due to shrinking enrollment.

That announcement was bogus, too.

No Done Deal

Hogan is talking as though he can write a check to the three counties – Carroll, Garrett and Kent. He can’t.

In reality, he’s only putting a request for this appropriation in his next budget, due in January. It will be up to the Democratic General Assembly to determine if Hogan’s “gift” to three of 24 school systems is warranted.

It’s highly unlikely Hogan’s maneuver to aid just the three Republican counties will be approved as submitted.

Moreover, this funding from Hogan is only a temporary, one-year sop to the three Republican counties. It does nothing to solve their long-range education budget woes caused by too many school buildings and a dwindling number of students.

But the governor got raves from some Republican politicians and angry parents in Carroll County, who have been waging a concerted effort to keep three schools open, despite the fact that flat migration and slowing birthrates has led to a 7 percent drop in school enrollment, with more losses expected over the next five years.

Education Politics

Declining enrollment in Carroll County schools poses dilemma.

Hogan’s aid plan merely kicks the proverbial can down the road – the very same tactic Candidate Hogan railed against when attacking the O’Malley-Brown administration during last year’s campaign.

Carroll’s Conundrum

Following lengthy studies and deliberations, Carroll’s school superintendent recommended closing three under-capacity schools next fall and possibly two more later. This would save at least $5.2 million. He wants to address $14 million in unmet needs within the school system caused by the county leadership’s refusal to raise more local tax dollars for education.

Hogan is pandering to a few of Carroll’s Republican legislators, who want the state to bail them out of this education dilemma of their own making. The cold, hard reality is that maintaining a quality school system is a costly proposition for local governments.

The option they sought to avoid: Closing no-longer-needed schools, which are expensive to maintain. Such a move is intensely unpopular with those that are affected – parents and their children.

But Carroll’s school board refused to take Hogan’s bait. Members recognized they were being offered fool’s gold. They understood this would only add to the anguish and costs.

A true conservative wouldn’t play this type of political game.

Instead, a true conservative would let the downsizing (or “right-sizing”) commence so the school system spends its limited dollars more wisely and efficiently.

Isn’t the conservative approach espoused by Hogan all about eliminating wasteful government spending?

Longer-range Perspective

Rather than taking a partisan, piecemeal and temporary approach to this problem, why not examine the need to make long-range changes in Maryland’s school-aid formula?

Schools with declining enrollments shouldn’t suffer such immediate and deep aid cuts. That’s a flaw in the state’s education formula. Garrett County, impoverished and isolated, is a prime example of how this portion of the formula unfairly harms jurisdictions most in need.

At the same time, other parts of the formula need fixing. Baltimore City is being penalized because its property wealth grew last year due to waterfront developments. But that doesn’t necessarily translate into more local money for schools.

There’s an even bigger question not being discussed.

With the state likely to show a huge surplus in January, isn’t it time to take a bipartisan look at possibly raising Maryland’s per-pupil spending as the state’s economy gains momentum?

A panel is studying changes in the school-aid formula, with its final report due next fall. Republicans need to open their minds to supporting a future increase in state funding if they truly want to help schools in Republican counties.

Partisanship won’t disappear, though. We can expect a major tug of war on this issue starting in January and extending through the next gubernatorial election.

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The Air-Conditioning Fight

The following column was published September 30, 2015 by the Carroll County Times in the newspaper’s Community Times weekly edition.

By Barry Rascovar

Thank goodness for the cool breezes of fall.

That’s what thousands of students and their parents are saying these days in Owings Mills, Pikesville and Reisterstown, where some county public schools still lack air-conditioning.

It’s not a new situation. I wrote about it this summer. The problem goes back several decades.

Yet no one in county government sees an urgency in coming up with a solution ASAP.

Now Baltimore County Executive Kevin Kamenetz has been criticized by Gov. Larry Hogan, Jr. and Comptroller Peter Franchot.

Hogan called the lack of school air-conditioning “absolutely disgraceful and unacceptable.” Franchot, who complained years ago about this situation, said, “It’s a question of leadership, management and priorities.”

They’re right. Yet neither state official is providing any help to resolve this vexing problem in Baltimore County, where four dozen schools don’t provide air-conditioning in classrooms.

That’s not a concern these days with crisp, cool weather heralding a welcome change in the seasons.

But come mid-May through June and late-August through mid-September next year, schools without A/C will broil, leaving students struggling to learn.

Kamenetz, unlike his predecessors, has embarked on a $1.3 billion school improvement program that eventually will bring air-conditioning to nearly every education building, including four schools in our area – Bedford, Campfield and Church Lane Elementary Schools and Franklin Middle School.

But Kamenetz is unwilling to break the bank to pay for an immediate fix. His plan could take a decade to achieve.

That’s where Hogan can play a major role.

He’s got the power to recommend set-aside funds in Maryland’s public school construction program for air-conditioning.

That would be a huge boon for Baltimore County as well as Baltimore City, where over half the schools lack air-conditioned classrooms.

Impoverished Baltimore City cannot afford to place window air-conditioners in all of those schools and Baltimore County would be strapped to take that approach on its own, too.

Hogan, though, can place funds in his next budget in January to ensure that every school in Maryland has either central air-conditioning or window A/C units.

Unfortunately, this debate has produced a hash political tone, with Hogan threatening to withhold all school construction funds from Baltimore County unless immediate steps are taken.

That’s unwise posturing. It ignores the reality that Hogan, not Kamenetz, is in the best position to put up funds to see that every Maryland classroom is air-conditioned.

Hogan also can help schools that are showing their age if he puts up extra money to address physical defects in Maryland’s oldest public education structures. Owings Mills Elementary School, for instance, was built nearly 90 years ago and ranks near the bottom among the county’s schools as far as physical condition.

Maryland made a wise decision 40 years ago when the late Gov. Marvin Mandel relieved the counties of an enormous financial burden by having the state contribute most of the funds for public school construction.

Only Hawaii matches Maryland’s largess. It is a step that makes sure Maryland children are educated in decent facilities with modern conveniences.

But the job is not done. Older schools with deteriorating roofs, bad plumbing and no air-conditioning should be a state priority.

Hogan and Franchot want Kamenetz and county school superintendent Dallas Dance to appear at the Oct. 7 Board of Public Works meeting to explain why so many county schools lack air-conditioning.

Is this a publicity stunt? Let’s hope not.

Hogan, Franchot and Kamenetz should focus on coming up with answers that will get air-conditioning in all county classrooms by next spring.

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Hogan vs. Kamenetz?

By Barry Rascovar

Sept. 21, 2015 – In a bizarre twist, we might witness a preview of the 2018 gubernatorial campaign at the next Board of Public Works meeting.

Then again, a threatened confrontation between Republican Gov. Larry Hogan Jr. and Democratic Baltimore County Executive Kevin Kamenetz may never occur.

 

Hogan vs. Kamenetz?

Baltimore County Executive Kevin Kamenetz

Even more bizarre is the issue that could bring these potential foes into a debate arena: air-conditioning.

Hogan and Comptroller Peter Franchot, his tag-team partner in beating up on unsuspecting officials at BPW meetings, blame Kamenetz for allowing thousands of Baltimore County children to swelter through hot, humid early- and late-summer days because their schools lack A/C.

Four dozen Baltimore County schools still have no air-conditioning, which is shameful.

But Kamenetz is not to blame, nor is current county school superintendent Dallas Dance.

Hogan and Franchot are pointing accusing fingers at the wrong individuals.

$1.3 Billion in Upgrades

If the two men did some basic research they would find that Kamenetz and Dance are trying hard to rectify this sorry situation, which has been festering for decades.

They have embarked on a $1.3 billion school renovation program that will bring A/C and other upgrades to 99 percent of county schools within a decade.

Accelerating the county executive’s remediation plan – and how to do it — ought to be the focus of this debate.

More likely, though. is a battle of angry words with Hogan and Franchot having a field day criticizing Baltimore County’s mistreatment of school kids.

On the surface, Hogan and Franchot are right. No child in today’s public schools should have to sit all day in classrooms that top 90 or 100 degrees.

But what are Hogan and Franchot doing to eliminate this intolerable situation other than voice displeasure?

Neither official has lifted a finger to bring A/C to more schools in Baltimore County.

And what about Baltimore City, where over half the schools lack air-conditioning? Why aren’t Hogan and Franchot livid about that even more appalling situation?

The reason is politics.

2018 Political Foes?

Hogan sees a chance to embarrass a likely opponent in the 2018 gubernatorial campaign. Franchot sees an opportunity to tarnish a potential rival for the 2018 Democratic nomination for governor.

Odd bedfellows, indeed.

The two men not only denounced Kamenetz for Baltimore County’s un-air-conditioned schools, they requested that he and Dance appear before the Board of Public Works in early October.

But there’s nothing on the board’s agenda that requires Kamenetz and Dance to show up in Annapolis on Oct. 7. Neither the governor nor the comptroller can force such attendance.

Still, it makes for good theater when politicians call-out a potential foe.

If the confrontation takes place, it may not be a propaganda victory for Hogan and Franchot. Indeed, they could end up with egg on their faces.

Problem-Solver

Kamenetz complained about the lack of air-conditioning when he ran for county executive five years ago. Since taking office, he has reduced the percentage of no-air-conditioned schools from 52 percent to 20 percent with enough money appropriated to lower that figure to 15 percent.

By 2021, he wants A/C in nearly every one of the county’s 173 school buildings, or at least have the money in hand to begin the work.

Clearly, Kamenetz and Dance are part of the solution, not part of the problem.

If Hogan and Franchot want to blame someone, they should chastise former Baltimore County school chiefs and former county executives Jim Smith and Dutch Ruppersberger. They are the ones who dropped the ball and failed to make air-conditioned schools the county’s highest priority.

Indeed, the real culprits are bureaucrats in the county’s school system who made some astounding blunders beginning 15 or 16 years ago.

Back then, school officials hired an out of state company to analyze the physical defects of county schools. The estimated repair costs, including air conditioning: $130 million.

But county officials delayed acting on those expensive recommendations. Each year, work was put off. Nearly a decade later, the county asked the state for funds to begin the long-overdue school renovations.

Yet no one updated the original report to account for soaring construction costs.

Lack of Funds

Thus, when engineering firms were hired to start the school repairs, the county found itself woefully short of funds.

Then the county goofed again, asking the engineers to fix only the highest priority items at each school. Plumbing defects, leafy roofs and dangerous electrical wiring took precedence, not air-conditioning.

The engineering firms complained that this made no sense. Why not use available funds to totally renovate the schools in the worst shape and ask the state for more money to renovate the other county schools over the next few years?

Those complaints were ignored.

A renovation at Ridgely Middle School under Smith’s admiistration somehow managed to overlook the need for air-conditioning and windows that opened for ventillation. Franchot heard about that debacle and showed up at the school to lend support to the angry parents.

Not until Kamenetz arrived as county executive in 2010 did air-conditioning become a priority.

Solutions, Not Complaints

At this stage, what needs to happen is for Kamenetz and Hogan to agree on a speed-up of the county’s air-conditioning timetable. How that will be financed is the key question.

Both of them must put more school construction money on the table, even if the money goes toward window air-conditioners in some schools until a more permanent fix is completed. (Anne Arundel County air-conditioned 20 of its elementary schools with window units, getting a huge discount by making a bulk purchase of commercial air-conditioners.)

Hogan, though, has been Scrooge-like in spending state dollars. Kamenetz, too, has shied away from spending that could mean a tax increase.

The time has come to fashion a solution rather than using school children as political pawns.

The campaign for governor can wait. There’s no reason to begin the blood-letting at this early stage.

But there is every reason to try to come up with a solution that will bring air-conditioning to every classroom, not only in Baltimore County but in all Maryland schools.

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Hopeless in Baltimore?

By Barry Rascovar

June 17, 2015 — Sometimes you just want to scream, “What an outrage!”

Book burning

That certainly is the case with the “Baltimore Book Burning” revealed in The Baltimore Sun — hundreds of books mindlessly trashed by city school officials who seemed to have forgotten their raison d’etre: to create a love of learning among children and to better the community.

Instead of taking the textbooks and library books from the now-closed Heritage High School (shuttered as a cost-saving move) and wisely offering them to students, their parents or others in the community who might benefit from the knowledge and pleasure books can impart, bureaucratic knuckleheads opted to “recycle” them — a polite, modern-day way of conducting an old-fashioned book-burning.

Any book published before 2000 was deemed outdated and thus useless to other schools or to the citizens of Baltimore who might benefit from reading a good yarn, or a book that helps them learn.

That’s right, books the same age as the one I wrote, entitled, “The Great Game of Maryland Politics,” were deemed antiquated. All those words about the politicians and government actions during the 1970s, 1980s and 1990s were judged to be useless by so-called “educators.”

So were books by Mark Twain, John Milton, Thomas Hardy, John Steinbeck, William Shakespeare and Elie Wiesel.

Anti-education Educators?

There were plenty of newer books in the junk pile, too, because no one from school headquarters bothered to supervise this mass destruction of knowledge printed on paper.

It’s hard to remain hopeful about Baltimore’s future when the school system seems dominated by anti-education paper-pushers and numbers-crunchers.

No wonder many teachers, parents and elected officials were anguished by this flagrant display of uncaring hostility toward the written word.

How can they have faith in the city’s education leaders after witnessing this sickening waste and intentional destruction of essential learning tools?

Back to the Basics

Baltimore is a struggling, aging urban city with serious poverty, employment, housing and crime issues that urgently need addressing. It also has a school system filled with too many unthinking placeholders more concerned about their paychecks than the basics of education.

Humanity suffers when there are intentional book-burnings like this one. Ignorance flourishes when bureaucrats fail to open their eyes to simple, creative solutions that would benefit society.

What happened at Heritage High School is unacceptable. Baltimore City’s political leaders need to act.

Either the school system becomes a partner in educating and uplifting the city’s communities or it becomes an enemy of the people.

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