Brian Meshkin knew that he would likely earn a spot on Howard County's Board of Education well before the final votes were tallied. Friends of his three school-age children also knew, which is why shortly after Election Day they gave his kids a list of concerns to take home to their father.
At the top of the list: cafeteria pizza. It has to be better. The current offering, they say, is horrible.
Also, the kids want computers in every classroom, as opposed to being mainly in computer labs, and they encourage more computer activity embedded in the curriculum. And getting back to school meals, they figure there should be a snack during the day, preferrably before lunch, because kids get hungry before then.
Meshkin has told his kids to keep the lists coming, no matter how trivial they might seem. He wants everyone in the county's education circles, including students, to offer him ideas and feedback about what everyone believes a school board member should pay attention to.
In a close election that delayed the board swearing-in ceremony until absentee and provisional votes were counted, Meshkin captured one of the four vacant positions with the most votes among any of the six non-incumbent candidates — more than 31,000.
He and newcomer Cindy Vaillancourt will be new additions to the board as it begins its new term. Incumbents Frank Aquino and Sandra French won their re-election bids, finishing first and second, respectively, in the voting.
New board members will take the oath of office Dec. 6 at the county's Department of Education.
Vaillancourt said her victory came as a surprise, particularly since, unlike many of the candidates, she didn't receive any official endorsements. "As a nonpolitician I thought that would mean I had very little chance to get support," she said. "One of the things you don't know is if it's worthwhile or if you're wasting your time."
Vaillancourt credited individuals who supported her campaign and others in the county who ultimately took to her vision for educating county students. "They're excited about the prospect of having somone who they can contact that is not aligned with one of the parties or the unions or any organized group," she said. "People are as excited as I am to have a voice on the board so issues can be heard. Even if it's just a perception, people need to feel listened to and heard."
Meshkin said that in the past he had worked with board members while serving on county committees and commissions, but he has yet to sit down with any of the members and present his vision for the board.
"For me, it's going to be interesting to be behind closed doors with them and actually talk with them about some of these things," he said.
That vision includes innovation and doing more with less budgetwise (particularly if the state pushes pension costs to the county); ensuring that state and federal education mandates are addressed in line with the county's definition for success; and increasing public input and involvement.
"One of the reasons we have a great public school system — yes, we have wonderful educators; yes, we have good students — but we also have a great public. I think we need to engage that public more," Meshkin said. "Oftentimes our very dedicated school system staff will develop proposals and ideas, and they will be almost fully done, and then they'll ask the public for feedback. We need to give people a sense of ownership in the school system."
Meshkin says that as he assumes a position on the board, he prepares to make decisions that will affect his three children for the next several years. "When I look at the school system, I'm not looking in the rear-view mirror," he said. "I'm looking at the vision that I'm going to be confronting as a parent for the next 15 years.
"That long-term perspective going back, and growing up here, and the long-term perspective going forward I think shapes the things that I think are really important."