The tidal wave of emails continues to flood my inbox with announcements of cancellations due to the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic sweeping the world, now targeting the United States and inflicting its first confirmed case in Talbot County the past Sunday.
Stories about friends and relatives cancelling or postponing trips abroad due to the very real threat of the virus continue unabated.
Well-meaning instructions concerning how to avoid becoming affected by COVID-19–whether by “social distancing” or constant hand-washing— flood the same inbox, social and mainstream media.
And, true of natural and man-made disasters in our country, rolls of toilet paper are flying off the shelves. Whether it’s panic caused by a few inches of snow or hurricane conditions or the current COVID-19, Americans seem driven to buy toilet paper. I’ve never understood the physiological connection between uncertain societal mishaps and the desperate need for toilet paper.
An unexplainable human phenomenon, I guess.
And, of course, I cannot ignore the huge, downward turn in a formerly red-hot stock market caused by the uncertain path of coronavirus and shamelessly poor, weak leadership at the wobbly White House. Only belatedly has Trump responded with genuine concern, not superficial bravado.
On the state level, however, Gov. Larry Hogan has exhibited superb, proactive leadership in closing schools, restaurants, bars, gyms and movie theaters and sounding appropriate alarm and concern. Other governors have done the same. Hogan understands the substance and optics of this crisis.
And again this past Sunday, Talbot County Council President Corey Pack, joined by key leaders engaged in emergency preparedness, announced the first virus case and proclaimed a local emergency. While the news was not good, the public deserved to know and undertake even more care in hunkering down and trying to thwart the spread of the coronavirus.
On an economic note, I’m afraid that hourly workers, those without safety nets and savings available during emergencies, are particularly vulnerable to the economic consequences of this pandemic. For their sake, I hope that COVID-19 diminishes and disappears quickly. I’m not optimistic. The economic pain will deepen.
Now, in a classic demonstration of burying the lead, I switch my sights to the Talbot County Council. I can’t help myself. I will explain.
Amid the understandable fear and trepidation in our state about an uninvited medical pest, I am concerned too about educational reform under discussion in the Maryland General Assembly. I’m referring to the Kirwan Report and consequent legislation entitled the “Blueprint for Maryland’s Future.”
Last week, the county council considered two amendments to the yet-unpassed legislation without taking the time to hear from Superintendent Kelly Griffith. As was clear from an interview with her last week in the Talbot Spy about the complicated and expensive reform initiative, she fully understands its ramifications, not only for the state but for the county. She’s the expert, who must be heard.
In fairness to the county council, it rightly is keenly fretful about the funding formula that penalizes the county based on its wealth. Our school system suffers from this formula, based in part on the property value in a county blessed with nearly 600 miles of waterfront. Teachers leave the county for better-paying jobs in other counties that receive greater state funding.
A working session is planned soon with Griffith, but not before two amendments were brought last week to the council, one of which passed.
Talbot County has a mixed reputation in the Maryland legislature. Its wealth is well-known. So is its low property tax rate. So is its tax cap. The question arises, understandably so, in the corridors of power in Annapolis as to why the county is not doing more to enhance its school system based on its wealth.
Talbot County is viewed as a refuge for the rich. Many in Annapolis expect the school system to be better funded locally. That doesn’t seem to be the case, unfortunately. The low property tax rate and the tax cap restrict the county council’s fiscal flexibility.
If the county council feels compelled to offer its support or lack thereof for an educational reform bill speeding its way through the legislature—one with significant long-term impact on educational quality in our 23 counties and the City of Baltimore—it should do so in a deliberate, not piecemeal way.
While I understand that the relationship between the county council and public school system can be fraught as elected officials must balance so many needs, I believe that it must seek the input of a local expert in evaluating educational reform. Superintendent Griffith is that person.
It makes sense to act with information and data. As it is doing in coping with COVID-19.
Columnist Howard Freedlander retired in 2011 as Deputy State Treasurer of the State of Maryland. Previously, he was the executive officer of the Maryland National Guard. He also served as community editor for Chesapeake Publishing, lastly at the Queen Anne’s Record-Observer. In retirement, Howard serves on the boards of several non-profits on the Eastern Shore, Annapolis and Philadelphia.