For larger schools, one size does not fit all

Oct. 27, 2011, 9:22 p.m. | By Maggie Shi | 10 years, 1 month ago

Schools should be given support staff allocations proportional to their sizes

In architecture and engineering, support isn't an afterthought. Without proper support, even the most elaborate skyscraper would be reduced to a pile of broken glass. In this regard, there is no denying that support is essential. Conversely, in regard to school staffing, support is considered by some to be quite the opposite. The term "Support" has become synonymous with "trivial" or "secondary." But support positions are anything but trivial — without them, a school, like a building, can crumble.

In recent years, MCPS has slowly been whittling away at support staff numbers in response to the budget crunch. Positions like media specialist, IT systems specialist, registrar, business manager, administrative secretary and financial assistant have all been cut down. The numbers are now down to one per school, across the board. According to Magnet Coordinator Peter Ostrander, the county justifies these cuts by saying that these positions are not affected by a school's size, and that each school should have the same number of positions because it is "equitable.”

But individually these cuts actually promote inequality between the schools. These positions are, in fact, affected by the school's size. And because of that, the cuts hurt Blair, the biggest school in the system, the most. To Ostrander and many others at Blair, the problem is simple: "We have more students, so we have more computers, more requests to the registrar and more classes requesting help from the Media Center. "These days, the support staff has to do more with less. " "I think volume is the single biggest difference,” media specialist Andrea Lamphier says. She says that she used to help students individually, but now her focus is on the library as a whole.

For IT systems specialist Peter Hammond, juggling Blair's 1,200 computers as well as keeping the school's network up and running is a daunting task for just one person. To imply that an IT specialist's job, or that of any other support staff, is not affected by the number of students at a school is beyond unreasonable; it is downright false. "Blair has more computers than some schools have people," he says. He adds that the county assigns an IT specialist to schools when they hit 600 to 700 students, but Blair has over three times that number. When Hammond is unable to get resolve an issue, it has to be turned over an IT specialist from the county. Then, Ostrander says, "we will have to rely more on Central Service, which would result in longer turnaround time. Things that could be resolved in minutes could take days."

Blair is also unique in that it houses the magnet and CAP programs, which impose their own burdens on the support staff. For example, Blair has a ninth period to accommodate for these programs. This means that many students expect the Media Center to be open during and after ninth period. But according to Lamphier, "I contractually get off at 2:30, so ninth period is on my own time." She says that although she is willing to stay after school and assist students, it was much less of a burden in the past when there were more media specialists.

The magnet poses a particular burden. Because of its focus on computer science, so Blair inherently has more computers. "My to-do list is getting longer every day," he says. "I can't keep up, and things are going to fall through the cracks."

There are very few instances where injustices are made so starkly obvious in the numbers. No one can deny that Blair is big and that it has a ninth period or that it has higher computer usage. The county can try to pretend Blair is just like any other school, and it can pretend not to notice that the workload in support positions is correlated to the school's size. But while the county has the privilege of being able to ignore these numbers, Blair staff has to face the facts every day. The amount of work support staff has is proportional to the number of students they serve, so logically the number of staff should be proportional as well.

For now, Blair staff has to keep plowing through as the situation becomes direr. They can try to adapt by compromising or relegating tasks to others, but this won't solve the issue. As Hammond says darkly, "It's clear to us it's not sustainable, but not clear to people with power. I hope someone realizes it before things come crumbling down."

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