Wednesday, February 9, 2011

Baltimore County Public Schools: Three Current Issues -- Clear Symptoms of a School System in Rapid Decline

The Mansion on the Hill: Baltimore County Public School Headquarters
Insensitive, Detached, Corrupt...

Once a national leader for one of the nation’s best school systems, the Baltimore County Public Schools System now sets the standard for an unresponsive, arrogant, self-serving organization that is corrupt at the highest levels. Their behavior is overtly hostile toward the communities it serves and they act with the kind of heavy-handedness, corruption, and contempt of a banana republic dictatorship. In this posting we will examine three elements with the hopes the county population which has been stripped of their most basic rights to be able to affect the situation will become so incensed, the State of Maryland will change course allowing for the community that is supposed to be served by Baltimore County Public Schools have effective control of their local schools, but that would mean the government and state legislature, both of whom are soaking wet drenched in state teachers’ union money would have to surrender their control to the voters of the county and there is no greater threat to union hegemony than the people assessing how their ever increasing taxes are being spent.

First, a few words of background, Baltimore County is a huge school district. In well-to-do communities for the most part in the areas particularly those surrounding the county seat have schools where the school system at least provides the appearance of safety. Kids achieve at a satisfactory level and go on and succeed in college. The “fertile crescent” which follows York Road or I-83 from Baltimore City to the Pennsylvania line, an area rich with private schools still retains plenty of solid upper middle class families and well qualified teachers are not hard to find. Catonsville, on the other hand, a community due west of downtown Baltimore, is likewise a well-to-do community with a healthy dose of a cohesive small town sense of local pride finds their community all but forgotten except when the powers from the Mansion on the Hill seek to impose their way with a very heavy hand. Between US-40 and MD-140, considered the northwest is an area with an African American population where test results are terrible and schools refuse to deal with an increasingly urban attitude. The northeast corridor particularly that which is defined between US-1 and US-40 on the northeast side of the county is sprawling with rapid growth, over-crowded schools

Against this backdrop, three items are in the news right now that surely will not make the local news on television and are at best buried deep if covered at all by the Baltimore Sun. One must consider that it was only last fall when the school system got a black eye for spending over $80,000 to erect a gaudy sign and message board on Charles Street surrounded by an upscale neighborhood that would be contrary to zoning restrictions in many commercial areas for their newly opened West Towson Elementary School and the Ridge School which serves special needs students. After community outrage, the sign was replaced by something less obtrusive, but the money was wasted by a system that is always pounding its fist for more money.

Issue #1: In most jurisdictions schools are seen as a community based facility where school grounds are used for local functions when classes and school activities are not in session. This would include fundraising efforts for local needs whether it is charitable organizations, volunteer fire departments, scholarship funds, or neighborhood celebrations. Baltimore County Schools enforces policies inconsistently and often in such a heavy handed fashion that such things as crafts fairs at Ridgely Middle School and Loch Raven High School, a local fair at Perry Hall High School, and a recycling drive at Hillcrest Elementary are all threatened. The event at Ridgely had been held there for 29 years. The ultimate absurdity comes from Catonsville where the system would not allow Catonsville High School to hold its own PTA’s craft fair at the school. The result was that what had been a very successful fund drive took in $7000 less than the year before.

Catonsville also faced the curtailment of one of the region’s great local events of the year, the Catonsville 4th of July Celebration which starts with a parade down its main street, grows into an all day picnic and carnival on the high school grounds and ends with a glorious fireworks display.

For whatever self-serving or paranoid litigious reasons, Baltimore County schools have hidden behind policies they’ve created to destroy what small traces of community spirit exists in Baltimore County, a huge suburban sprawl with no incorporated towns or more local authority, where schools often with the most obscene gerrymandered boundaries where a kid could go to school in one community for elementary, another for middle, then go miles away to another for high school.

The school system cloaks themselves behind the self-righteous boundary of their grounds should not serve for-profit enterprises and since many of these events might hire some outside contractors who in turn share profits with their organization or add value to their events like hot dog and refreshment vendors, their sanctimonious stance is to screw everybody even if it’s their own PTA!!!

Baltimore county schools must be subservient to the communities they serve. Their property belongs to the community for the community. The taxpayers who pay for this property should get the maximum return for their investment. The communities deserve to hold events that increase the communities’ cohesiveness and involvement.

However, in Baltimore County, the last thing in the world the school system would want is cohesive communities that have leadership and the ability to pursue issues and concerns of their locality. Surely, part of their concern would be how the schools manage themselves. Clearly, it’s not to support the local community nor their children they are charged with teaching.

Issue #2: Baltimore County School Board members are appointed by the Governor of Maryland and thus become patronage appointments for political cronies. The Governor, in turn looks to reward those who have rewarded him not consider the localities involved particularly if they’re ones who aren’t particularly supportive of his election. There can be no question that two out of the last three governors, Glendenning and O’Malley have been tightly connected with the State NEA chapter, the Maryland State Education Association, whose former long serving President, Pat Foerster, is the governor’s top education advisor with a history of union activism of over 30 years. Given the huge amount of money union PAC’s contribute to not only O’Malley, who does somersaults at the snap of a finger for union demands, but to state senate and house of delegate members who often are made or broken by a teacher’s association endorsement, the local communities which might have middle schools and high schools in different communities far apart, where’s the commitment to the communities? Who articulates local concerns at the county level? What input do county residents have in the operation of their schools?

Once upon a time, there were at least local school board nominating committees who’d draw up recommended candidates from which governors would chose, but for the last quarter century, it’s been all about politics and except for Bob Ehrlich’s brief tenure, it has all been staunch representatives of Democratic party interest with the unions’ influence supreme.

This year, some Baltimore County legislators are attempting to support a measure that would create a “hybrid” school board consisting of elected and appointed members. It should be no surprise that the sitting board voted unanimously to oppose any change in the current system.

The school board, of course, appoints the school superintendent. Clearly examining the history of such appointments – the system’s leader is chosen for blatantly political considerations not what value a person has to lead a complex, diverse, and enormous school system.

One can’t help but see the irony of the teachers’ union opposing an elected school board for fear that “special interest” groups might gain leverage in setting school priorities which begs the question, what is a teachers’ union? Of course they’ll stir up fears that the locals might get hijacked by a hardcore Christian fundamentalist faction that would insist on banning teaching evolution, teach creationism, and seek to indoctrinate kids to be Jesus loving gun toting fanatic right wingers.

Where a system run like this leads couldn’t be clearer than what we’ll see in the next issue.

Issue #3: Institutional Corruption at the Highest Level

Baltimore County Schools are required to create request for proposals and conduct an opening bidding process for major expenditures. Over the past ten years, during the reign of superintendent Joe Hairston who was appointed for explicitly political reasons having a track record of failure in his previous posts including a system with a high minority population in suburban Atlanta, the system has paid a software company four million dollars to a Georgia software company owned by a former Hairston colleague.

Since November, 2000 EduTrax owned by Steve Holmes who served as Clayton County’s technology officer when Hariston was the subdivision’s school head has provided its product and profited substantially by the size of the Baltimore County account. This arrangement was setup by Hairston only four months after taking the Baltimore county position.

Hariston argues that the software EduTrax provides is proprietary and that no other company even now makes a comparable product. So what is it about this product that is so essential for Baltimore County Schools? What public input was solicited? How were the needs established and what needs assessment hearings and open meetings were held?

In 2002 and 2006, not only were contracts renewed but the vendor also was able to sell the county additional products. The software is designed to help the county manage and assess student test data. Hmm, have they ever heard of Microsoft Excel? How and when has Hairston ever demonstrated that EduTrax software is so unique that it is necessary to buy database management software outside of what is commonly available in the open market? In the turmoil of today’s economy surely it is a risky proposition to purchase vital products that are only available from a single source. Where would the county be if EduTrax went out of business? Technology firms have a funny way of doing that.

The superintendent’s office cannot offer any iron-clad rational for why only Edutrak was required. When asked if the county had considered other products Hairston boldly asserted such consideration was not necessary. Digging his hole deeper he went on to say, “"First of all, there is no school system over 100,000 students that had anything operating and if they did it was off the shelf. And if there had been, I can guarantee you I would have known about it,” oh really. Baltimore county citizens are supposed to take his word for that. Show us the data. Show us the money!!! With no cost/benefit analysis without the appropriate personnel and data involved, any statement regarding the worthiness of this product is nonsense. Such a process takes time, up to a full year, and should never be done at the snap of a finger on somebody’s say-so. Anne Arundel County uses software and services from IBM. While they did not issue their own RFP, they based their purchase on similar requirements for which Charles County when through the whole process. At very least, options were considered and due-diligence was exercised.

This is no isolated incident by the corrupt superintendent. Software developed by a high ranking county school employee, the Articulated Instruction Module, a grading tool, was awarded a legal agreement by the Superintendent granting ownership to the copyright for the software. If this product was developed primarily on school system time by an employee who was responsible for software development and implementation, rights to that software should have remained with the school system and not to provide a substantial financial reward for a favored employee.

The bottom line is even not considering the superintendent’s personal relationship with the head of the software company involved, absolutely irresponsible procurement decisions were made making any kind of determining whether or not the county purchase was a sound investment. “Because I say so” doesn’t cut it in any professional environment where the decisions of one are made committing the funds of others – shareholders, taxpayers, or other stakeholders. Such conduct in the private sector gets people fired and if such a move were conducted with an elected school board in place (that never would have hired a person of questionable credentials like Hairston in the first place), the community would be likely to discipline such a superintendent promptly.

In Baltimore County schools, special interest groups guide the decision making process and unless a school board decision runs contrary to the mighty MSEA goals and objectives,, they could care less. If they were shown such outrageous expenditures took money out of where MSEA wanted money to go, things would be different.

What we’ve reported in this posting only scratches the surface and deals with three huge issues that bring the focus on how the very heart of the system is corrupt. There are dozens of issues from student discipline policies, to insane multicultural and political correct propaganda being interlaced into the instructional program, to plenty of horrendous over expenditures of taxpayer money that show the forces who sit atop the mansion on the hill are self-serving thieves with nothing but contempt for the children and families they are empowered to serve.

What will be the breaking point for County parents many of whom are pulling their kids out to attend private school, moving out of Baltimore County to Carroll County, Harford County or Southern Pennsylvania where schools are more responsive to their needs? Many deal with the problem by exiting, but if they remain in Baltimore County or for that matter stay in Maryland as much school money flows from the state, the task of reforming their local schools is daunting. If the governor does not see the Baltimore County vote as essential to his election, the pursuit appears futile.

Parents can and must attend school meetings and raise a huge fuss. Sadly, much of the real decision making is conducted in executive session so that they only report what they’ve already decided to do to the public. Civil disobedience, loud noisy demonstrations on Greenwood property, at large high schools, in Towson and Annapolis might be the next step.

Hairston must be investigated thoroughly perhaps even requiring a grand jury and surely has no business running a school system he is not competent or ethical enough to manage. The future of the kids in the 3rd largest system in Maryland, 23rd largest nation wide, with over 143,696 potential students with only 30,000 fortunate enough to opt out for private or parochial schools is what is at stake here.

Parent/voters cannot be misled by issues such as teachers’ salary. County teachers are compensated EXTREMELY well. Nor can arguments about having enough teachers to do the job holds water either for where there are too many students in a given class, there is another class that is being rewarded in the other direction. The teacher to student ratio in Baltimore County is excellent.

The issues are management issues. What’s in the curriculum, how discipline is handled so an honors student doesn’t get expelled for a nail file, and stuffing abhorrent political and moral values down children’s throats are the kinds of issues that should ignite the passion for community involvement. County residents pay a premium for a product that is mediocre at best.

Baltimore County schools are at a crossroads. If the deterioration continues, the county as a whole will erode into a huge largely urban mess. The appointment of Hairston might be just such a ploy to make that happen as such a population would serve the status quo in Annapolis nicely. Given the quality of the vast majority of county communities, the potential for Baltimore County schools could be exceptional if the county citizens could forge a school board that represents their character and values not the slimy, cynical calculations of an opportunistic governor hell bent on serving self-serving special interests who fight real reform at every turn.

Issue #1:

Issue #2:

Issue #3:,0,171096.story


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