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Who’s Getting Left Behind?

Churchill cluster residents share concerns with School Board about school budget.

Bottled water was available when the Montgomery School Board addressed the Churchill cluster PTA presidents last Monday. The significance was not lost on Suzanne Weiss. “Can we offer you some water to drink?” she asked three School Board members in the Cabin John Middle School gym. “Would you like to use our rest rooms?”

Weiss, president of the Cabin John PTA, alluded to high lead level in drinking water and antiquated bathrooms at area schools. These were two of the concerns Weiss, seven local PTA presidents and nearly 100 other community members shared on Monday with the Montgomery County Board of Education — or the 38 percent of the board that showed up.

President Pat O’Neill, Vice President Charles Haughey and Sharon Cox were the only members of the eight-member School Board present at the triennial cluster meeting at Cabin John Middle School on Monday, May 9.

Churchill PTA leaders Laura Siegel and Robyn Solomon hope to see more School Board members in at the next cluster meeting in 2008.

“It leads to the feeling that they don’t care. … All the parents show up, and all of them are volunteers,” said Solomon, Churchill’s PTA president.

“It was very disappointing,” Siegel said.

OTHER PARENTS shared Solomon’s and Siegel’s concerns that there is a county-wide inequity in school funding, and that Churchill cluster schools, despite high student achievement scores, are being shortchanged. They cited problems with class size, school capacity, textbooks, science labs and the bathrooms.

A Cabin John parent drew applause after describing area school facilities in comparison with the state-of-the-art computer technology at Montgomery Blair High School. Cabin John has wonderful teachers, she said, “but the building [is] a disgrace. … I implore you to push to improve the schools.”

“Bathrooms are old; they’re out of date,” said Linda Ackerman, president of the Bells Mill Elementary PTA. “A number of children wait until they go home to go to the bathroom.”

Heidi Dubin, a local parent, said she withdrew two of her children from Potomac Elementary. Part of her decision was based on statistics that showed an inequity in county funding per pupil. “My kids were wasting their time,” Dubin said.

“The grass is always greener,” said O’Neill, who said she heard the reverse claims from parents at the Kennedy High School cluster. “There is a perception wherever you are that the other side is getting [more].”

In response to concerns about class size, Mark Kelsch, the county schools’ community superintendent, said that principals “watch the [student size] numbers like a hawk.” As the student body at a school grows, principals request extra staff, and the Churchill and Wootton clusters have been successful in this endeavor. “You can ask me — we’ll go after what we need for the community,” Kelsch said.

MANY QUESTIONS from parents in attendance centered around Board Policy FAA, which governs public input on building or improving school facilities.

“We have concerns about proposed changes to Policy FAA,” said Geri Shapiro, president of the Hoover Middle School PTA. “This shuts out not only the PTA, but also any outside group or parent.”

School Board members tried to calm parents’ fears about revisions to the policy, and said a recent redrafting takes recent input into account. “I want you guys to participate,” said O’Neill, who added that there will still be committees on boundaries, modernization and site planning.

“I wonder why there is any issue where I shouldn’t have input,” said Nancy Fitzgerald, a Wayside Elementary parent.

SOMETHING TO TALK ABOUT

Eight PTA presidents and nearly 100 community members of the Churchill cluster attended the triennial Churchill cluster meeting with the Montgomery County Board of Education. Each PTA president spoke, and the floor was open to questions from the other attendees. A sampling of some of the issues discussed:

GRADING POLICY

Laura Siegel, a Churchill parent, asked the School Board members to press the county public schools for specifics about a county-wide grading policy that is currently scheduled for implementation next year. Churchill, which implemented the county’s proposed grading policy for the first three academic quarters this year, recently made the policy optional for teachers in the fourth quarter.

Churchill PTSA President Robyn Solomon questioned the feasibility of implementing a uniform grading policy throughout the county. “Too many factors come into play … to be able to have the same policy at each school,” Solomon said.

ALCOHOL/DRUG ABUSE

Current county policy states that students who show up at a school event under the influence of drugs or alcohol receive a 10-day suspension. “[It’s] tantamount to a vacation,” said Robyn Solomon, Churchill’s PTSA president. “They need to learn about drugs and alcohol.” Churchill will implement a policy that will suspend such students from all school activities for 30 days, strip student group officers of their position, and remove their parking and open lunch privileges, and require them to meet an alcohol/drug abuse counselor once a week.

SEVEN LOCKS ELEMENTARY

Several community parents and students attended the cluster meeting wearing “Save Seven Locks” t-shirts, referring to county plans to build a new school on Kendale Road and possibly close Seven Locks Elementary. David Tiktinsky, a Seven Locks Elementary parent, demanded a yes-or-no answer from each School Board member to several questions he had. O’Neill triangulated a third course — no answer. Familiar with Tiktinsky from prior meetings on the issue, School Board President Pat O’Neill described his tactics as “unusual and rude,” and she said, “We’re just not going to answer.”

HEALTH/SEXUAL EDUCATION

Only one parent raised the issue of the county’s proposed sexual education curriculum, which included “Protect Yourself,” the condom-on-a-cucumber video proposed for 10th-grade health education.

Last week, Montgomery County Public Schools Superintendent Jerry D. Weast suspended the new health/sexual education curriculum that was scheduled for implementation at county middle schools and high schools next year. A federal judge granted a temporary restraining order against the program in response to a lawsuit by two groups opposing the curriculum. Weast said he will direct school officials to review the materials proposed for the curriculum.

Darren Dobkin, a local parent, said he approved of the decision to review the curriculum, and hoped constructive changes would result. “Please make sure when new material is added, it’s added in a balanced manner,” said Dobkin, who was applauded by the parents in attendance.

Haughey and O’Neill said they agreed with Dobkin; O’Neill stressed that “Protect Yourself” emphasized abstinence over and over. “Who knew when we ran for the board that our lives would be ‘Sex, Lives and Videotape?’” O’Neill said.