Owen Hanratty's restaurant, Cacao Lane, is perched along Ellicott City's historic district, a narrow swath of eclectic shops and eateries where 19th-century Main Street meets modern chic. The area is the center of a Howard County community that, along with Columbia, earned a No. 2 ranking on Money magazine's 2010 Best Places to Live list.
Ellicott City is also a community that has become virtually synonymous with school board representation.
Of the 14 candidates in this year's county school board election, six list Ellicott City residences, including Hanratty and incumbents Allen Dyer, Frank Aquino and Sandra French.
According to statistics supplied by the Howard school system, the school board has had at least one Ellicott City resident as a member since 1986. At least eight Ellicott City residents have served on the board since 2000, more than any other community and more than twice as many as Columbia, the second-largest community in Maryland, behind Baltimore.
"Ellicott City is very strangely shaped, so it's actually fairly large. The area covers a lot of real estate, and that lends itself to a large field of candidates," said Hanratty, during an interview in his restaurant.
Like many other Ellicott City residents, he is active in county politics. Before moving to Howard County, he lived in Hampden and ran unsuccessfully for Baltimore City Council in 2004.
Hanratty said he decided to make his first-ever run for the school board in part because "I like the theater of it. I like being involved and knowing what's going on. I'm curious about it and interested."
School board candidate Jim Adams, who moved to the county in the late 1970s, says the community is a good fit for residents who are active in the schools and other areas of service.
"A lot of us came here for the system of education for our kids," Adams said. "I think there is that commonality that we wanted something better, and it's like that movie about the baseball field: 'Dream it and it comes true.'
"But it really comes true when you become active with it," said Adams. "People play a part in the local politics. It's not a rebel type of place, but it's a politically active area, and it's the people who've moved here with the purpose of living a better life. They know that playing a part in PTA meetings and political clubs and other groups, they see results."
School board candidate Patricia Gordon, who served on the board from 2000 until 2010, when she did not run for re-election, points to the area's diversity. "Residents represent a variety of opinions," she said, "and various points of view impel candidates to stand for election to the Board of Education as well as other elected positions."
This year's election comes on the heels of Del. Frank Turner crafting legislation that would have transformed the school board to a hybrid model of elected and appointed candidates to address some county residents' concerns about what they say is a lack of geographical and racial diversity on the board. The legislation was withdrawn in the face of opposition.
Like current board members, Gordon said she disagrees with such a proposal.
"I appreciate Delegate Turner's concern about the lack of diversity on the Board of Education. At the same time, I feel that a completely elected board is more democratic and produces a more representative group," said Gordon. "I believe that the choice should be left to the voters of Howard County."
But Adams said he would prefer to see broader geographical representation. "I think that would be a better approach than what we have," Adams said. "I think we should have something where you get more representation from the different areas. I believe strongly in that."
Those in the current crop of nonincumbent Ellicott City candidates have voiced some of the same concerns about the board as candidates from other parts of the county — specifically the clashes among current members.
"Because some members of the BOE find it difficult to arrive at a process of mutual interchange, I believe that members with a different perspective should be part of the board," said Gordon.
Adams said the large field will make it difficult for candidates to distinguish themselves, regardless of residence. But he agreed with Gordon that squabbles among current board members have played a role in other residents seeking a spot on the board.
"The real campaign starts after the primary in April," he said. "At times you need to run for an office, and you know, like in this case ... the odds of winning are slight.
"We're counting on them," Adams said about the current board, "and there's no time for this emotional tennis match going back and forth. Get on with the work at hand. And if not, they can be replaced."