Monday, January 26, 2015

Compare and Contrast

How much of your schooling was dominated by the words "compare and contrast"? As high schoolers we used to groan when we saw the term come up again in yet another English essay. And, although they may not have been explicitly named, there was plenty of comparing and contrasting to be done in math, science, social studies, even in music classes where we listened to and evaluated performances.

Having the ability to compare and contrast was considered to be an essential part of my high school education. Why? Because it is essential in life to be able to evaluate and make choices. Life choices. Major purchases. Political candidates. Family budget allocations.

Ah, budget allocations. Let's talk about those. Have you seen this petition? It states:

The citizens, parents, and staff of HCPSS want to preserve school based staff who directly support student instruction and academic success. Stop the proposed elimination of secondary library media staff and kindergarten para-educator positions in the proposed FY16 budget.

Reducing staff members who provide direct support to both students and teachers is of great concern. So is an increase in class size, also included in this year's budget, although not in the petition. Now, you might think that parents would just automatically sign a petition based on a gut feeling that services are going to be reduced for their child.

But this is Howard County. What I see are concerned parents asking to view concrete budget information. They want to look at what we did spend, where it went, what we are proposing to spend, and where the cuts will be. They want to examine other areas that might be more suitable for cuts. In short, they want the ability to compare and contrast in order to make an educated decision.

Funny thing, that.

Last year, in the Superintendent's switch to zero-based budgeting, something got lost. From the 1/14/14 Baltimore Sun article by Sara Toth:

Yet absent from the budget is a side-by-side comparison of what specific programs received in previous budgets, versus what they actually cost, said Delmont-Small.

Financial data detailing what was budgeted versus what was spent was provided to the review committee, but Delmont-Small last week asked for it to be made public as in years past.

"Generally, [those numbers] are for account managers," Foose said. "You would need some sort of advanced degree. ... We structured [the budget] so it was more user-friendly. The details are for program managers."

"In order to get a sense of budgeting from one time period to another, it's helpful to have those numbers," Delmont-Small said.

Delmont-Small asked that Foose "have the same confidence in the community to understand the information."

Yes, you read that right. In a response to a citizen request for more complete financial information, the Superintendent essentially defended her decision to withhold that from the general public because one would "need some sort of advanced degree" to understand them.

In Howard County?

What I see in Howard County are concerned, involved, well-educated parents who, even if they don't have "advanced degrees" (although many of them do) are pretty darned savvy about how to assess information to make intelligent choices. They want to compare and contrast. But the way information on the budget is now being presented, is almost impossible to do that.

Christina Delmont-Small, President of the PTA Council of Howard County, made the above comments as a member of the Operating Budget Review Committee, whose mission is to review school system programs to see if they're properly funded in the budget. The OBRC is the only way for members of the Howard County community to have direct input into the budget process.

Actually, I should say "was". The OBRC has been dissolved by the Board at the recommendation of the Superintendent.

Intelligent choices. Data-driven decisions. Compare and contrast. How are we going to do that now?






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