As the end of the year approaches, one thing is becoming clear about Montgomery County education: It needs leadership.
Start with the national grieving over the tragic loss of life in Newtown, Conn. The effects will reverberate throughout the country. Montgomery County School Superintendent Joshua P. Starr will no doubt face a barrage of tough questions on school security and the safety of children.
A number of measures have been taken over the past several years, particularly in the wake of the Columbine shootings, so parents should feel confident the school system has taken reasonable steps. Still, as details from Newtown emerge, Starr — and all school administrators nationwide — must re-examine what is considered adequate security, and then communicate to parents that steps are being taken.
But the aftermath of Newtown is just one issue.
For months, the Montgomery County Council has signaled its coffers havenít rebounded from the Great Recession. Anyone paying attention would expect no increases in spending in the next round of budgets. School spending, however, presents an unusual conundrum for the county because state law insists per-pupil spending must at least equal the level in the previous year. Thereís no backsliding, and if a county tries, the state has new powers to seize tax collections and transfer it to the school systemís bank account. Council members have decried the law, especially with Montgomeryís track record of generous spending on education. Some might argue the stateís new powers are going to force county governments to be excessively conservative; one yearís increase will have to be reflected in every future budget.
So Starrís decision to propose a budget $10 million more than the statutory minimum seems downright risky, as if he viewed the councilís actions as little more than a playground dare.
Starr will have to justify the increase. His Twitter social-media offensive pointed out the request is less than a half percent over the minimum. But even in a county that prides itself on the scholarly success of its children, the council will demand hard facts. Starr can expect his budget proposal to get scrutiny from the council unlike that seen in years.
One issue that has been percolating regionally was officially presented to the Montgomery County Board of Education last week. Some parents believe high school should start later than its current 7:25 a.m. start time, and took their petition to the board. The school system has examined start times before, and transportation was the key issue: Either elementary school children take the crack-of-dawn slot the high school students fill or the county buys a lot of new buses.
In accepting the petition, Starr practically promised action on the issue. If nothing happens, the superintendent could have a vocal contingent of disillusioned parents. A few weeks ago The Gazetteís Jen Bondeson wrote about a Garrett Park mother who wanted her 10-year-old daughter to take a Ride On bus to school. Thinking of that story, one wonders if there isnít an outside-the-box solution that could let high school start at a more civilized hour and not break the bank.
Starr already faces some disillusionment from parents whose children are the cutting edge of Curriculum 2.0, a series of lesson changes that are meant to improve a child's problem-solving skills. One of the side effects of the changes is that some students donít advance in mathematics as quickly as parents would like.
Parental skepticism is easy to understand. For a generation, one measurement of student success has been how quickly the child progresses through the math and English. A fourth-graderís report card with all Aís is one thing. That fourth-graderís A in sixth-grade math is another thing altogether.
From a distance, itís surprising that Starr seems to be losing what amounts to a public-relations battle on the new lessons. The proposals, like his budget, have his fingerprints. All these issues are going to need a superintendent to get out in front to convince parents and the County Council that heís leading the school system — in the right direction.