Following years of declining student performance and increasing demoralization among teachers and staff, Baltimore County’s newly constituted Board of Education faces the all-important responsibility of recruiting a new school superintendent. The county is at a critical inflection point that will determine the trajectory of local public education — and the health of our community overall — for years to come.
As a parent of three Baltimore County Public Schools students, I urge the board, which has already signaled a fresh approach to system oversight, to find a candidate who will prioritize two broad changes that promise to help reverse the dispiriting trends of the past: eliminating school overcrowding and entrusting local communities with more of the Charles Street headquarters’ responsibilities.
Education fashions come and go. What does not change is that learning happens when teachers teach. Overcrowded classrooms and unaccountable, top-down management both severely undermine this essential formula.
Many factors contribute to schools having more students than they were designed for. Unmanaged residential development is foremost among them. The next superintendent should be an outspoken advocate for more effective limits on the pace of growth and for compelling real estate developers to help defray the costs of the county’s educational infrastructure.
In 2020, an independent government task force found that Baltimore County has some of the state’s least-effective rules for managing the pace of new development. Yet, county officials failed to act on the task force’s reasonable recommendations, so the housing stock continues to expand beyond what existing classrooms can handle. Similarly, Baltimore County’s response to state legislation authorizing local fees on development to underwrite new schools and classrooms is embarrassingly full of exemptions and loopholes.
For example, a developer is hoping to build 400 housing units in Lutherville, calling it a transit-oriented development. Any such plan should include an agreement to pay fees to help build the schoolrooms that will be needed when children residing in those units start registering for class a few years from now.
The school system will be conducting still more “boundary studies” — their euphemism for the practice of reshuffling which communities attend which schools. These too-frequent realignments are profoundly disruptive to students, families and communities. Even worse, they are also wildly inaccurate because BCPS makes changes based on old numbers instead of projections that consider future population growth.
In 2020, a boundary study promised 100 children would be sent to Hampton Elementary School from Pleasant Plains Elementary. Three years later, nearly 300 additional students are at Hampton, which puts it at 121% of capacity, according to documentation parents have seen. A more sweeping boundary study of 11 middle schools now underway is likely to further demonstrate the school system’s failure to plan.
The next superintendent should also give more freedom to the areas within the school district, so principals and teachers can focus on meeting the needs of children in their specific communities rather than on satisfying requirements set by Charles Street supervisors. For too long, the school system has consolidated authority by mandating systems and curricula across the county. As a result, teachers parrot identical lessons in classrooms from Dundalk to Pikesville, deprived of the joy of actual teaching.
Because many of these classes are overcrowded, they are also expending energy on basic classroom management rather than engaging with students to reinforce lessons at hand. Too many students, as a result, are either bored or overwhelmed by the pace of instruction. In both cases, the system is failing them.
Delegating more authority would have the added benefit of freeing up BCPS staff members to focus on their own administrative tasks. For example, they could finally repair their data systems so teachers and staff can trust how much vacation time they have earned or know when they can retire.
Public education has been a jewel of our society, our strength as a nation, the source of our prosperity. It has bound us together. After too many years of disappointment, Baltimore County Public Schools needs a bold and creative new superintendent who can restore its proud history. Finding this superintendent will be a challenge for our Board of Education. But the future of our children, our families, our communities and our county depends upon it.
Robin Campbell lives in Towson and is a parent of three Baltimore County Public Schools students.