Frederick school board makes big changes
New members eliminate controversial math program, approve hiring freeze and more
The new members of the Frederick County Board of Education promised during their campaigns for election this fall to change the school system, and they started in dramatic fashion at their first meeting on Wednesday.
In a surprise move, the school board eliminated TERC math as the primary resource for elementary students, changed the school system's alcohol policy so it is limited only to incidents that happen on school grounds, and decided to mark all its vehicles as owned by Frederick County Public Schools, including the one that Superintendent Linda D. Burgee drives.
The board also placed a hiring freeze on central office administrators.
The changes take effect immediately, but could take time to implement. For example, schools will continue using TERC math a controversial teaching method that encourages students to look for multiple ways to solve math problems and takes away the emphasis from standard algorithms until the end of the school year.
And the new alcohol policy will take effect when the winter sports season ends in mid-March.
Newcomers April Fleming Miller, James C. Reeder Jr. and Brad Young were joined by longtime member Donna Crook made up the four-vote majority to change the policies.
A surprise vote
Making such radical changes without advanced notice to the public drew bitter criticism from board members Kathryn Groth and Jean Smith, who have sat on the board for years. Board member Angie Fish was absent from the meeting.
Both Groth and Smith voted against most of the changes, though Smith abstained from voting on the hiring freeze and Groth abstained from marking the vehicles. Neither explained the reasons for their abstentions.
Both Groth and Smith said they didn't object to the substance of the changes as much as the manner in which they were done. None of the changes were listed on the board's agenda, and Miller, Reeder, Young and Crook caught them by surprise when they voted to amend the agenda after the start of their meeting.
"I don't have a problem with any of these subjects. I just have a problem with the way we are doing it tonight," said Smith, who voted in the minority with Groth against changing the agenda.
Groth asked her new colleagues to hold off on the decisions until she and other board members could at least look at the issues and consider their potential effect. "I'd like to be able to read these [materials] first," she told the rest of the board. "These are mammoth decisions that we are making tonight."
Moving at such speed through major decisions doesn't allow the public to study the issues and comment, Groth said.
But Young defended the board's actions. While making decisions in such quick fashion will not become standard practice for the board, Young said, it was necessary Wednesday because new members didn't have a chance to place their concerns on the agenda earlier.
"We all ran on those issues," he said. "We wanted to make a statement."
Eliminating TERC math
Miller, who made the motion to discard TERC math, said making an immediate change was essential so school staff have time to implement it by the fall of 2011. She also asked school staff to start looking for ways to help sixth-graders whose instruction may have suffered because of the use of the much-criticized TERC textbook, "Investigations in Number, Data and Space."
"I don't want another year to go by of doing a disservice to these students," she said.
Miller said she had spoken with school system staff before the meeting, and asked them to provide some data studying the performance of last year's sixth-graders, who used the TERC textbook as a primary resource in elementary school for two years. School staff said they have compiled the data and will present it to the school board in January.
Meanwhile, school staff will look for other textbooks that don't only replace TERC math, but also that meet the demands of the new federal standards, said Steve Lockard, the school system's elementary associate superintendent.
"That work can happen throughout the course of the year," he said. "We started that work last year."
Reeder said he supports that change because TERC was the main concern for most voters that he spoke with during his election campaign. "I have never met anyone who supports this," he said.
The school system's alcohol policy came into public attention in the spring of 2009, when school officials abruptly terminated Young's contract as softball coach at Walkersville High School after a parent brought alcohol to an end-of-the year party that Young hosted at his home for his team and their families.
Young said neither he nor any of the students drank alcohol at the party, but school officials determined that he violated the school system alcohol policy. They considered Young's party a team function and the policy mandates that coaches do not possess, drink or distribute alcohol while performing their official duties and representing the school system.
Young fought the decision with wide support from the community, and eventually school officials reinstated him as a head softball coach at Walkersville High School.
The process led the school board to review the policy again in May, but eventually the board decided not to change it. If coaches are working in their official capacity, they should not be drinking alcohol, regardless of where they are or if students are present, board members said.
Young disagreed with that decision, which is why on Wednesday he moved for the board to limit the policy only to incidents that happen on school grounds and off school time.
He said the policy remains too broad and infringes on people's lives outside the school. It also opens the door for misuse because schools would investigate even anonymous reports of students or staff allegedly violating the policy, Young said.
The change of the policy does not mean that the school system would support students drinking or using illegal substances. "This is simply the part that controls what happens off school property and off school time," Young said.
Crook made the motion to mark school-owned vehicles with the seal of the school system with the exception of security vehicles, which may need to remain unidentifiable, Crook said.
Smith also wanted to exclude the vehicle that Superintendent Burgee drives, but the board disagreed.
Smith said she was concerned about the safety of Burgee, who often has to make unpopular personnel decisions, decides on hiring and firing personnel, and also expels students.
Burgee's school system-owned vehicle is a part of her contract, and historically has never been marked as a school system vehicle.
She said she has appreciated the anonymity because she lives in the community, works and drives late, and often has to deal with angry employees or parents.
"I do expel kids from school. I am often out late, alone. And I often deal with people who are angry," Burgee said, adding that she would accept the board's decision.
Reeder said his priority was implementing a central office hiring freeze. Some positions could be federally funded, and therefore must be filled, but those that don't have to be filled will remain empty. "We are at extraordinary times," he said. "This is a situation where every position needs to be scrutinized."
The school system has two central office openings one for a new director of special education and psychological services and, the other for secondary athletics and extracurricular activities. Both positions are open due to retirements.
Crook welcomed the new board members' decisions to make changes, and said the new attitude on the school board will be good. "People haven't seen change for a long time," said Crook, who for the first time in months voted with the majority of the board. "This is change that is going to be good."