Another in an occasional series of informal reports, analysis and opinion based on a meeting of the Harford County Board of Education.
When middle school students complete advanced math courses – the same courses that are offered in high school – should they get high school credit? For the Harford County Board of Education, the easy answer was ‘yes’ – but the devil was in the details at a recent board business meeting where conflicting philosophies of education, differing views about the role of school board members, and at least one awkward moment, were on display.
The idea of granting high school credit to middle school students was first raised by Superintendent Robert Tomback in October, 2009. To flesh out a plan, he set up a task force spearheaded by his second-in-command, Bill Lawrence. Lawrence first presented the plan to the school board in April, with a vote scheduled for June 13.
The Devil in the Details
Prior to the vote, Lawrence reviewed Tomback’s recommendation: high school credit would be granted, but neither of the courses in question – Algebra I and Geometry – would be included in a student’s high school grade point average, nor would they count toward the four math credits that Harford County requires for graduation. Lawrence explained that if students picked up two high school math credits while in middle school, they would only have to take two more in high school to complete the requirement, leaving a potential two-year math gap between high school and college.
While the math credits earned in middle school wouldn’t satisfy the high school math requirement, Lawrence said, they would contribute to the total credits needed to graduate. Following a question from Board Member Alysson Krchnavy, Lawrence had an awkward moment when he incorrectly asserted that the number of credits required for a Maryland diploma was 24. Dave Volrath, the soon-to-retire head of high school performance, later supplied the board with the correct answer: 26.
Overall, Lawrence explained, the goal of Tomback’s recommendation was to get more students to take AP Calculus and AP Statistics.
Board Members Bob Frisch, Don Osman and Rick Grambo challenged that goal, saying that once a student earned the four high school math credits required, regardless of where they earned it, students and parents should decide what to do next. Frisch, a Baltimore County high school social studies teacher, said that students planning to seek a four-year college degree were already likely to continue their math studies. Osman, a retired HCPS high school English teacher, said that some students might prefer to load up on science or arts courses instead. Board Member Rick Grambo agreed with Osman that the issue was one of choice. And so, the battle lines were drawn.
Defending his recommendation, Tomback said that the intent was to “raise the bar” in light of a Harford County economy that, he said, would be driven by science, technology, engineering and math (STEM). Tomback added that his plan represented a “philosophical difference” with some board members. Frisch later countered that parents and students should decide whether or not to pursue high level math, with assistance from the schools. With the superintendent’s plan, Frisch said, “We’re not just assisting, we’re insisting.”
After some wrangling and several unsuccessful attempts by Frisch to amend Tomback’s recommendation, Tomback’s philosophy won out in a 5-2 vote. But along the way, larger philosophical differences among board members were on display.
The Role of School Board Members
During the discussion, Board Vice-President Leonard Wheeler said that he would “rely heavily on staff” in making what he called a “high stakes decision”. It’s a philosophy Wheeler has expressed during prior debates and one that appears to be shared by Board President Mark Wolkow and Board Members Alysson Krchnavy and Tom Evans, all of whom have historically been reliable votes for the superintendent.
On the other side, with Board Member Bob Frisch clearly out in front, has been the view that board members should consider recommendations from the superintendent without being a rubber stamp. Board Member Don Osman, who often votes with independence, appears to be in this camp, as does Rick Grambo; although Grambo votes with the superintendent more often than Frisch and Osman.
Behind the scenes, these differences have resulted in acrimony between some board members, and publicly, have resulted in split votes on important issues such as the superintendent’s proposed budget and recommended personnel changes. Several of the split votes included attempts by Krchnavy to shut down amendments coming from Frisch. In each case, the superintendent’s proposals were ultimately approved.
Changing of the Guard
Both camps will lose adherents at the end of the month when Wolkow, Evans and Osman leave to make way for several new board members. Nancy Reynolds, a retired principal of Bel Air Middle School, and businessman Joe Hau have been appointed by Gov. Martin O’Malley to join the board on July 1. Also beginning terms on that date will be Cassandra Beverley, elected to represent Fallston, and two more appointed members who are as yet unknown. The moves will expand the board from seven to nine members as part of the transition from a fully appointed board to a board composed of both elected and appointed members.
Also on the horizon is the election of the next school board president and vice-president, expected at the July 11 meeting. The likely candidates are Wheeler and Krchnavy, who have served the longest on the board. But the jobs are open to any member and a surprise candidate is not out of the question. Rumors abound that several former HCPS insiders are vying for the upcoming appointments, including a one-time president of the school board.
Where all of this will leave Superintendent Tomback is anyone’s guess. But with three board members leaving, five new board members arriving, and a new president and vice-president on the way, the changing of the guard may be about to change the status quo in Harford County Public Schools.