Howard County Times

Internet plays role in Howard Board of Education race

At a recent forum leading up to Tuesday's Howard County Board of Education primary, candidates fielded audience questions on such hot-button topics as emphasis on test scores, teacher morale and communication among board members and parents.

But as the forum neared its close, Andrew Denny of Ellicott City wondered whether many candidates were in step with how voters often communicate with one another.

"How many of you have LinkedIn accounts?" he asked about the networking website. After a momentary pause, a few hands went up among the 11 candidates, and some in the audience took note of the tally. Then Denny continued.

"How many of you tweet? How many of you blog?"

Perhaps a few years ago, Denny's query might not have seemed relevant, but now it speaks volumes about the Internet's impact on an election. Placing signs on grassy lots or shaking hands at public gatherings is not enough anymore. Candidates can now reach out to exponentially more voters with their own websites, blogs or social network pages.

And some say it is in their best interest to do so.

"Adopting new technologies in one's personal and professional life demonstrates several things," Denny said later. "First, it shows a candidate's passion for innovation. Don't we want our children to be innovators? If elected officials aren't innovative and leveraging technology even in their own campaigns, I suspect they may not actively promote technology integration in the classrooms.

"Second, it demonstrates creativity," Denny added. "There are countless untapped resources available for free on the Web."

It appears that the candidates have grasped that message.

"I consider the Web to be the most important element of my campaign because, as a working parent of four, I have a limited amount of time available for traditional campaigning," said candidate David Thalheimer. "As the Web has become more important in the lives of most people, and social networking sites such as Facebook have expanded their reach, I think the Web will have a greater impact on this year's race but can't say if it will change the outcome."

Thalheimer is possibly using the Web more than any other Board of Education candidate. In addition to a Facebook page and blog, his personal website includes letters written by parents to the board, a links page highlighting education reform groups and an "Other Candidates" page that lists the candidates' e-mail addresses and Facebook and personal Web pages if they have them.

He also gives a synopsis of each of his opponents' platforms and tells how his differs from theirs.

And while placing other candidates' information on his website might give them exposure, Thalheimer's site is so prominent on the search engine Google that it comes up in searches of most of the other candidates.

"Google prides itself on providing the most relevant links," Thalheimer said, "so I have to assume that my website provides the best opportunity for someone to find information about each individual candidate and the Board of Education election in general."

Most of the candidates have Facebook pages, including Marcelino Bedolla, Leslie Kornreich and Robert Ballinger, and incumbent Sandra French has a website. Incumbent Frank Aquino is among a few candidates using Twitter and David Gertler is among a few using LinkedIn.

Some of the candidates have demonstrated creativity with their sites.

Brian Meshkin has a section called "Munchkins for Meshkin," who he says are state children ages 3 to 13 who support his Board of Education campaign. He also has a YouTube site that includes a brief biographical movie.

Larry Walker's site enables you to tweet that you're there as well as recommend the site to users of StumbleUpon, a browsing tool. David Proudfoot's site makes use of his last name with such sections as "Between the Toes," "Lend a Foot" and "Walk Our Way."

Candidate Cindy Vaillancourt said the sites are useful to the candidates as well.

"There have been a number of events that I would not have known about if they had not been posted on other candidates' websites," she said. "As candidates have linked articles from various publications to their Facebook pages, the other candidates as well as the public have been able to see the source materials that will be commented on and discussed."

Denny said his question about the Internet was prompted by a discussion with a colleague about how to screen job applicants for their technology proficiency, and that candidates looking to lead a school system must demonstrate such proficiency.

"It shows a commitment to transparency," Denny said. "Technology provides a simple means to communicate from all levels of government down to each student."