When Arbutus resident Nick Stewart found out in June that he was going to be appointed to the Baltimore County Board of Education, he admits he didn't entirely know what to expect from his new role. But in the three months since, he's gotten an initiation by fire of sorts.
Since his summer appointment, Stewart has been thrown into the center of such as issues as overheating classrooms, redistricting at southwest area elementary schools and requests from parents at one local school that the school's principal be removed.
Along the way, he's garnered rave reviews from parents and fellow board members.
"It is kind of like drinking from a fire hose," Stewart said. "It's still a learning process."
For Relay Elementary School parent Heather Mix, having Stewart as the local representative on the board has been a good experience.
When she couldn't find a working email address for Stewart ahead of a July 8 parent meeting concerning leadership at her child's school, she sent a hand-written note to the soon-to-be board member inviting him to attend the meeting. She was equal parts happy and surprised a few days later when he reached out to accept the invitation.
"Nick has been incredibly responsive," said Mix, who added that she had long been in touch with former board member Michael Bowler, whom Stewart replaced, before the end of his term. The good relationship that parents at the school had with Bowler has carried over seamlessly into Stewart's tenure, she said.
"It was nice that Nick just kind of picked up right where Mr. Bowler left off," Mix said. "I think that's huge."
'A unique place'
When he's not attending school board meetings or answering calls and emails from parents, Stewart is an attorney specializing in commercial litigation at Saul Ewing LLP. A native of the Timonium area, he is a graduate of Dulaney High School, the University of Maryland, College Park, and George Washington University Law School. While in law school, Stewart also worked as a speech writer for former Maryland Gov. Martin O'Malley.
Stewart and his wife, Katie Stewart, who also is an attorney, have lived in Arbutus since 2013 and are expecting their first child later this year.
When the couple was looking for a place to settle down, Arbutus was an easy decision, he said. Having grown up playing baseball all over central Maryland, Stewart said the town's annual Little League Parade always stuck with him.
"This is a unique place," he said. "People in this town are fantastic."
Prior to his appointment to the board, Stewart had run for delegate in District 12, which covers the southernmost portion of southwest Baltimore County. After being knocked out with a fifth-place finish in the Democratic primary in June 2014, losing to eventual general election winners Clarence Lam, Terri Hill and Eric Ebersole, Stewart said he decided to think of other ways to make a difference in the local community and accepted an appointment a few months later from County Executive Kevin Kamenetz to the county's Workforce Development Council.
From there, he said, the school board role seemed like a great opportunity and a sensible step in tackling the workforce development goal from a different angle.
The needs of local employers are changing, Stewart said, and many companies are looking for workers who have modern skills that can help them in rapidly growing industries, like technology and engineering. The school system can help both local business and residents by providing practical skills and knowledge in elementary, middle and high school to help kids be prepared when they enter the workforce, he said.
"That was a really exciting opportunity, to kind of put bookends together," he said.
Learning a new job
The Baltimore County school board is composed of 11 members who are appointed to five-year terms by the governor, one student representative who serves a one-year term and the county schools superintendent. Gov. Larry Hogan appointed Stewart to replace Bowler, whose term expired at the end of the 2014-2015 school year.
Often at board meetings and in schools-related correspondence, Stewart said he is reminded of his experience coming through Baltimore County schools. The high classroom temperatures that have been making headlines for weeks at Dulaney High School are something he experienced himself, he said, adding that it's far from rare that he spots a familiar face in the crowd at bi-weekly board meetings.
"The fun thing about growing up here and going to school here is there's a sense of small town community," he said, adding that his dad endured a sometimes two-hour commute every weekday to Chevy Chase for work as a cardiovascular imaging specialist while Stewart was younger just so that his kids could go to Baltimore County schools.
In the months since he was appointed to the board, Stewart said he's benefited from a lot of support from Bowler and veteran board member and southwest area resident George Moniodis.
The task of taking on a position on the board is no small matter, Moniodis said.
"It's just like learning a new job," he said.
At meetings and other board events, Moniodis said Stewart reminds him of himself when he first took a seat on the board. He doesn't hesitate to ask questions and clarify points on things he wants to know more about, Moniodis said of Stewart, adding that he and other members of the board are happy to pass their knowledge onto new members. Moniodis' term on the board will end later this year.
"People in general do not realize the magnitude of responsibility that this school board has to the citizens of Baltimore County," Moniodis said, noting the system's nearly $1.8 billion budget. Taking on a role with the board, he said, is a very time-consuming commitment that takes a certain kind of person.
"He wants what's best for the kids of the Catonsville and Arbutus area," Moniodis said of Stewart, whom he sits next to at board meetings. "He's a thinker."
The pair plans to try to get out of the board's Oct. 6 meeting early in order to make it to a meeting being hosted at the Arbutus Town Hall by Maryland Comptroller Peter Franchot about the lack air conditioning at some local schools, Moniodis said.
Although membership on the board is unpaid, Stewart said he and the other board members spend several hours each week attending meetings, answering calls and emails from parents and community members and discussing the issues with each other.
"We're representatives of the community," he said.
"I think sometimes people get this idea that as soon as you're appointed or elected to anything you become this aloof individual," he said. "It's not that way."
As the school system deals with some major changes this year, including the incorporation of computers into regular teaching at more schools and redistricting at all but two of the southwest area's elementary schools, Stewart said he is excited about what the next five years on the board will bring.
Balancing his career with his role on the board can be draining, he said, but it's worth it to know that he's making a difference in his community.
"If it's something you love and it's something important to you, you find a way," he said. "Sleep is a commodity."