This is one in a series of articles profiling the six candidates running for the Board of Education.
A drive to better his community and a passion for education prompted Ellicott City resident Bob Ballinger to once again toss his name into the ring for a seat on the Howard County Board of Education. And this time, he said, voters are more enlightened when it comes to choices.
"There's been a lot of discussions about what this board has done and decisions that they have made in the last year and half," Ballinger said, "and I think more people now have more of an interest in educating themselves on what the school board has done and what they want it to do in the future."
Ballinger, 45, ran for the board in 2004 and 2010, each time losing in the general election. "Being so close" was the driving force in running again, he said.
He believes his perspective of fiscal responsibility is something the board needs.
"There may be misconceptions about the budget, and in the last year, more budget decisions have been highlighted," Ballinger said. "For example, there's a need for more transparency in the budget, or the $60,000 being spent on an impeachment (of current board member Allen Dyer) after a board member has lost in the primary, the board rubber-stamping salary raises given by the outgoing superintendent (Sydney Cousin). ... People have an interest in why these decisions are made and how their taxpayer dollars are being spent."
Del. Warren Miller, a Woodbine Republican who has endorsed Ballinger, said that Ballinger was a person who would "roll up his sleeves and try to resolve problems that might arise on the board," and would take a look at how the board conducts itself when it comes to the budget.
"The main responsibility, in my opinion, of the board is the size of the budget, and making sure that money's being spent appropriately," Miller said. "When times are good, it's one thing, but we haven't been there in quite a few years, but every year the budget seems to go up. If you spend money in one place, you have to cut in another, and I don't think that's the mind set of the current board."
Ballinger, who is a congressional staffer for Rep. Joe Pitts, a Republican from Pennsylvania, said collaborating with other board members, parents, the community and teachers is the best way to ensure open communication, transparency and a more responsible budget.
In the instance of approving a new middle school curriculum, Ballinger said the sitting board roundly ignored the protests of hundreds of parents and teachers, which brought up questions as to how much the board weighs public opinion in decision making.
Teachers are the best resources when it comes to knowing what schools need, Ballinger said, but he did not receive an endorsement from the Howard County Education Association — the union representing teachers — because he did not pursue it.
"There's a strong difference between the teacher in the classroom and the political union," Ballinger said. "The selection process (for endorsements) is not based upon teachers belonging to the union, but a political committee formed in the union."
HCEA President Paul Lemle said that had Ballinger pursued the endorsement he would have been given "a fair shake," and the group considered every candidate.
"My hope is that anybody who gets elected has an understanding that frontline educators are trusted friends and advisers," Lemle said. "But if you look at his website, he's very hostile to HCEA, and we represent all of the educators in the county, and 90 percent of those teachers are our members."
In addition to championing increased technology for distance learning — online classes — and a renewed focus on vocational educational, Ballinger also is a supporter of open enrollment among county schools.
"A parent should have the right to send their child to the school that they believe best serves their student," he said. "It is not fair to have to someone trapped in a school because of social or financial (constraints)."
Last year, open enrollment was shot down as an alternative to elementary school redistricting, and with another wave of moves coming for county elementary students, Ballinger said it's something that again needs to be discussed.
"The parents' opinions, test scores and the challenges we face with the achievement gap with minority and low-income students all show that we do not have equality in each school," he said.
New faces on the board means a new call for accountability within the school system, Ballinger said, both with the budget and with programs and policies.
"The board supervises the superintendent and approves the direction of the school system," he said. "I don't believe that a recommendation of the superintendent or central office is always correct."