With rising concern over school safety, should county police officers or sheriff's deputies be assigned to all public schools, along with additional screening methods, such as metal detectors, student pat-downs and clear backpacks?
Cutroneo: I believe in the value of an School Resource Officer in middle and high schools, both from a security standpoint, and an opportunity for police/community engagement. I also believe in ensuring the perimeters of our schools and classrooms are as safe as possible (locked doors, intercom system). I do not believe in metal detectors, student pat-downs and clear back packs. 1. Metal detectors: who would “man” the detectors? Does this mean hiring more staff? What happens if it goes off? What about all of the false positive alarms? 2. Clear backpacks and pat-downs: The last thing a teenager wants is for the world to see their personal belongings at school… I do not believe clear backpacks and pat downs would make students feel safer; rather, they would feel more exposed and violated. I believe the priority should be on “safety from within” and improving school culture: smaller class sizes, more wrap around mental health services, less standardized testing and more opportunities for student/teacher relationship building.
Is the county school system's program to reduce crowded schools through redistricting an effective method given projected shifts in population growth, housing development plans?
Cutroneo: I believe redistricting is a band-aid solution to overcrowded schools and we need stronger APFO laws to address root cause. Temporary classrooms in trailers made out of metal have become permanent classroom spaces, the status quo. This simply isn’t equitable, nor fair. The indoor air quality is sub-par and and they are vulnerable to safety threats. The Board of Education needs to be part of the school planning process from the beginning, with a more formal partnership with the Department of Planning and Zoning. It seems we are to rely on the input and statistics of just a few people and I would argue that the BOE should take a much more proactive and collaborative role. We need to explore alternative financing methods to generate funding for capital projects. By using a public private partnership (P3), we can leverage private investment with public funds for building design, construction, operation and maintenance. Moreover, given the shifting demographics, we need to plan for more flexible building prototypes, i.e. buildings that can be more than a school. This is why models like P3 are so important as we move forward.
Superintendent Michael Martirano has shifted budget priorities and is proposing to eliminate a world language program that's in place at eight (of 41) Howard County elementary schools and his budget might require increasing class sizes, by one student, in several middle and high schools. He would like to increase the number of social workers — at a pace of three per year — to help students struggling with mental health issues. Are these prudent choices?
Cutroneo: I do not believe that increasing class size should ever be used as a way to balance the budget. For me, class size is a non-negotiable. There is still much room to streamline spending but unfortunately we do not have a strategic financial plan in place, with established performance measures and outcomes. Implementation of a strategic plan is one of my priorities. How can we plan for the future and prioritize if we don’t know how things have worked in the past? Until we have funding, we need to explore community resources and partnerships as 3 social workers is not nearly enough. That being said, we currently have 3-4 people who work on a 900 million plus budget. I believe we need to redirect central office staffing to provide adequate resources to the departments that directly impact our fiscal stability (budget, procurement, accountability). I believe investing in positions that could ultimately save money that can be redirected to where its needed is a prudent use of resources.
The system's health fund has been in the red for several years — the deficit projected at $50 million by this summer — and Mr. Martirano has requested one-time funds from the county to start to pay down the deficit. But higher health insurance rates are also in the cards; this is one apparent sticking point in the ongoing union contract talks. How do you believe this problem should be addressed?
Cutroneo: I believe that one time funding from the county is more prudent than raising insurance rates. Teacher retention is paramount to the success of our students and school system. Raising health premiums along with our plan to increase class size may cause more teachers to leave the county.
How would you evaluate HCPS' efforts to reduce achievement gaps between students of different races and backgrounds? Does more need to be done?
Cutroneo: I believe in addressing root cause. If you take away students who qualify for free and reduced meals, test scores rise and suspension rates fall across all ethnicities. The effects of poverty on student achievement in Howard County is stunning. Since most students who qualify for FARMS are minorities, it is these groups who fall behind. We need to use data to target interventions and support more effectively and partner with the county to address the societal socioeconomic disparity that translates into opportunity and equity gaps at school. I believe priorities should be: - targeted preK opportunities -decreasing class size -less time behind a screen and more time engaging with teachers. -Schools with high FARMs rates should have social workers and therapists on staff, not “floating” between schools. -We must keep the effects of poverty in mind as we draw boundary lines to ensure that most of the need is not concentrated at just a few schools. -Mandatory cultural proficiency training for all teachers -Trauma informed care training targeted at schools who need the most support -More active recruiting of minority teachers and aggressive training and retention programs.
Did the school board act appropriately in agreeing to pay former superintendent Renee Foose more than $1.6 million in salary and benefits to persuade her to resign?
Cutroneo: Absolutely the Board acted appropriately. Given what we now know about the financial mismanagement under the prior superintendent, I’d say this decision was a very wise investment and in the long run, saved us tens of millions of dollars. Unfunded programs, like Teachers for Tomorrow and the raiding of health and dental fund has caused the current financial crisis. As it stands, we will continue to pay for the lack of oversight of the former Superintendent for years to come.
How would you grade Mr. Martirano's performance and his reorganization of the central office?
Cutroneo: I believe Dr. Martirano has changed the culture of the HCPSS from one of fear of retribution to one of communication and engagement. It is clear that he values public opinion, which is a drastic change from the prior Superintendent; however, I do believe that caring too much about public opinion can become a handicap when it comes to unpopular decisions– for example, with redistricting. I also believe that the Board has been excluded (and therefore the community) from some important decisions, for example, the decision to increase police foot patrols in schools. With the prior Superintendent, there was a very adversarial relationship with the County Executive and County Council. This was not productive, and it was the school community that suffered the ramifications. The climate is much improved now; however, it is important for the Superintendent to maintain very clear lines between his office and that of the County Executive and at times it seems these lines have been muddied. As I have stated before, we can more effectively streamline central office positions. Since 2016, there has been an increase of over 1.3 million dollars in central office salaries. 540K of that has gone towards 3 new community superintendent positions. Though I do not question the value of these positions, I would argue that this may not have been the right time and given our current fiscal crisis, the priority should have been decreasing costs.