As deadline approaches, school board candidates are scarce

With the deadline less than two weeks away and only a few months removed from a protracted, headline-grabbing debate over the board's makeup and structure, only two incumbents and one challenger have filed to run for the three openings on the Howard County Board of Education next year.

As of Thursday, only incumbents Ellen Giles and Janet Siddiqui, who are up for re-election, and Leslie Kornreich, who ran for the board in 2010 and lost, have filed for the April primary, according to the county elections board website.

The deadline to file is 9 p.m. Wednesday, Jan. 11, 2012.

Board member Allen Dyer, whose term is also up in 2012, has said he plans to run for re-election, and other Howard County residents have said they plan on challenging Giles, Siddiqui and Dyer for their seats. But so far, no others have made their plans official.

The shortage of official board candidates so far is not unusual, election experts say. Don Norris, chairman of public policy at University of Maryland, Baltimore County, noted that candidates often "bide time," waiting until close to the deadline to file.

Still, the limited field to date is the opposite of what some had hoped for the upcoming elections, especially after this year's heated debate over diversity on the school board.

In August, County Executive Ken Ulman commissioned a panel to explore ways to foster racial and geographic diversity on the seven-seat board, where positions are elected county-wide. Ultimately, the panel recommended five of those seats be elected by district, and two appointed by the county executive.

State Del. Frank Turner, a Columbia Democrat, had taken up the cause, promising to introduce legislation mandating the changes in the Maryland General Assembly. But following massive public backlash and denouncement from some panel members, Turner announced in October he was withdrawing the legislation.

Still, Turner expressed hope that the debate his proposal caused had been as effective as the proposal itself in encouraging a more diverse board. It was a hope echoed by others, some of whom are now worried.

"All of us are a little antsy about this (election) in particular, anxious to see if the community will respond to the discussions and get people out as candidates," said Chaun Hightower, PTA Council president and one of the panel members who denounced the group's final recommendation. "I'm personally a little nervous that we won't get a lot of candidates to step up from a variety of communities in the county."

Primary in doubt

At least one challenger appears likely. Former Howard County Education Association President Ann DeLacy said she will file after the first of the year.

"I was trying to wait and see how to get the biggest bang for my buck (in garnering attention)," DeLacy said. "That deadline is coming up pretty soon. I'm sure people will be coming out of the woodwork to file. I would hope so, anyway."

The primary election is scheduled for April 3, 2012. But the primary will be held only if more than six people file candidacy. If six or fewer candidates run, all qualify for — and will run in — the general election in November 2012.

Regardless, Norris said, with three incumbents vying for three open seats, the make-up of the board could remain exactly the same as it is now, since it's extremely hard to unseat incumbents.

"It's difficult (for challengers) anywhere, any time, unless (board members) have made egregious errors," he said. "It's generally hard to unseat incumbents, though unseating Dyer may not be difficult since he's become a lightning rod for discontent."

Growing discontent, spurred by Dyer's repeated lawsuits against the board, led the other board members in June 2011 to request the Maryland State Board of Education to remove him from his seat. That case is scheduled to begin in May — a month after the primary. If a primary is held, and if Dyer progresses to the general election, he would be campaigning for a second term even as he fights to finish out his first.

But whatever discontent Dyer may cause, Norris said, it might not be enough to draw people out to vote in the primary — especially since the only local positions up for election in 2012 are on the school board, which people tend not to pay attention to if the schools are doing well.

"A primary doesn't have anything to do in pulling average voters, such as a general election would have," he said. "Those are the important elections going on, and those are the elections that pull people to the polls. Without something else happening at the primary in April, turnout is going to be abysmal."

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