Advocates urge Baltimore County school board to better fund gifted and talented program

Published on: January 19, 2023 6:00 AM EST|Updated on: January 19, 2023 9:37 AM EST

The exterior of the Baltimore County Board of Education’s Greenwood Campus meeting location on 8/18/22.
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Advocates for the gifted and talented program and teachers this week called for more educator positions to be included in Baltimore County Public Schools’ budget for the next fiscal year.

The request at a budget public hearing Tuesday night came a week after Superintendent Darryl Williams touted an increase in full-time positions in departments that struggled during the pandemic.

There weren’t many people in attendance at Tuesday night’s hearing on Williams’ proposed budget for fiscal 2024, but speakers took three minutes each to tell school board members why they should consider making a few changes. The need for more teachers was an overall theme from those who spoke.

Williams has proposed a $2.6 billion budget that includes a $1.9 billion general fund, which represents a 5.7% increase over the current fiscal year’s general fund. Overall, the proposed budget would increase by 9.5%. Members of the community have the opportunity to say what they think of the proposal before a work session Jan. 24. The board, which includes five newly elected members and new leadership, is set to vote on the budget Feb. 28.

Two speakers said the Gifted and Talented/Advanced Academics program lacks sufficient staffing and the challenging curriculum needed for a program in which nearly a third of students participate.

Zamira Simkins, a member of Citizens Advisory Committee for Gifted and Talented Education, told board members Tuesday that more staff was needed to serve the 30,000 students enrolled in the program. The Office of Advanced Academics currently has four resource teachers, one coordinator and one administrative assistant. Williams has proposed cutting the number of resource teachers to just one.

Simkins said the program had eight resource teachers as recently as 2019. Their role today is more important than ever, she said, because the school system adopted curriculum in the program that does not differ enough from what non-GT students learn.

“So we appeal to you to increase the resource teachers to five instead of one,” Simkins said.

Fellow committee member Jessica Paffenbarger said the system’s lack of support for the program reflects a trend, and that not having adequate differentiated curriculum for GT and advanced students violates the Code of Maryland Regulations and board policy. Without advanced curriculum, students can become bored or misbehave, she added.

A school system spokesperson said in a statement that staff ”from the Office of Advanced Academics and the curricular offices work collaboratively to ensure the written and taught curriculum for gifted students is appropriately challenging and engaging as well as compliant with the Code of Maryland Regulations and BCPS Policy and Rule.”

Although the number of resource teachers has dropped, the superintendent has increased staffing elsewhere. In last week’s presentation, Williams highlighted the rise in English Language Learners — 3,421 more than four years ago. He also pointed out that more than half the student population, 66.4%, qualifies for free and reduced-price meals and that the number of special education students has jumped back up to pre-pandemic numbers. Students in each of those populations were greatly affected by the pause of in-person learning after the COVID-19 pandemic began.

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He proposes using $2 million to put English for Speakers of Other Languages programs in all secondary schools with 36 full-time staff; increasing funding for special education nonpublic placements; and budgeting $17.4 million for 135 community school positions in response to the growth.

Still, the head of the teachers union and several teachers say more educators are still needed. County Executive Johnny Olszewski Jr., a Democrat, dismissed Williams’ proposed budget for fiscal 2024 as “unrealistic.” The discussion comes as school board members consider whether to renew Williams’ contract when it expires at the end of June.

Williams was expected to make his case for keeping his job in a closed session after Tuesday night’s public hearing. The board met behind closed doors for a few hours, but no announcement about Williams’ employment status has been made.

Cindy Sexton, leader of the Teachers Association of Baltimore County, said effective teachers are the most important factor in improving student achievement. She noted the increase in enrollment for special education and ESOL students, as well as students living in poverty.

“Community schools can help address some of those concerns and needs around poverty if the program is properly and effectively implemented, but those students need teachers,” she said.

Sexton also renewed a push for higher pay. The system has made improvements over time, but it still isn’t where it needs to be, Sexton said.

Erica Mah, a teacher and parent, told the board Tuesday that the public did not have enough time to review the budget before the hearing. Mah also pointed to an inaccuracy in the budget (which has since been fixed), questioned the equity of staffing, and critiqued how the system selects and implements curriculum.

“Perhaps the money would be better spent on raising teacher salary in anticipation of the Blueprint requiring higher salaries but also [attracting] teachers so that if we do need to write curriculum, the resource teachers can actually do that job instead of being pulled into classrooms,” Mah said.

Fellow teacher Lloyd Allen, a special educator in math, was critical of classroom sizes. Parent Darren Badillo said too much money is spent on central office staff and not enough is making its way down to students.

Former board member Kathleen Causey, the last to speak, was also critical of the number of central office management. She also asked the board to investigate claims that an English curriculum being piloted in a handful of schools that costs over $10 million was “culturally insufficient,” with language that dehumanizes characters of color.