Finney vows to be agent of change Newest member has 'special energy' for school board


Carlesa Finney may well become the first Anne Arundel County school board member to sit on the floor during meetings instead of in her chair on the dais.

"It's that stupid podium they sit behind. It looks like you're coming to visit the Wizard of Oz," complained Ms. Finney, who was appointed last week to a five-year term.

"And sometimes, I think that's how parents feel they're treated, like they're coming to this great body of wizards. They have to be really self-assured to come up there and not feel intimidated. I have seen parents intimidated, and I've seen other parents who seem to have it all together, who are savvy, be treated very nicely."

Ms. Finney says she wants to change all that.

"I may be the first board member to sit on the floor in front," she warned. "I really do not like that setup. It may take five years, but for the record, I want to change it. The board must be seen as accessible."

But for the most part, school board-watchers will be looking to see not where she sits, but how she votes.

The board has been fractious in the year since C. Berry Carter II was made superintendent by a one-vote margin. Vincent Leggett, whom Ms. Finney will replace, frequently cast the deciding vote, as he did in the choice of superintendent.

"That's probably what she will be measured by -- her ability to bring a perspective to that board and help them pull together a leadership and consensus that will allow action," said Carl O. Snowden, an Annapolis alderman who has known Ms. Finney for more than 20 years.

The board is clearly split between those who support Mr. Carter and those who oppose him, Mr. Snowden said. And many will be watching to see where Ms. Finney comes down.

"People will quickly measure whether she becomes part of the factions, or whether she will become a bridge to both sides and try to develop a consensus," he said.

But Mr. Snowden says he believes Ms. Finney's special energy, and her sensitivity toward black issues may be another measure of her success.

"She's definitely into breaking down barriers that she sees exist between the community and the school system," he said. "She has long discussed, debated and argued the need for the school system to be more responsive. For the first time she'll have the power to shape and promulgate policy, and she will be able to test her theories with some realities."

Ms. Finney says she already is busy thinking of ways the school board can communicate better with the public.

She wants parents to get involved. But she says that doesn't necessarily mean having them volunteer at school.

"We need to come up with new alternatives for busy working families," Ms. Finney said. "There are lots of parents who would like to be involved, but they're caught up in commuting and fixing dinner or they attend so many meetings during the day they can't bear the thought of another meeting. Right now, parent involvement is defined by participation in PTA and CAC [Citizens Area Council] meetings, and that's fine, but we have to find other ways to get parents involved so they have responsibility and ownership."

Ms. Finney already has a track record in community involvement. She's the deputy chief executive officer for the family and community services division of the Community Action Agency.

She oversees the county's Head Start program, the Annapolis Youth Services Bureau, the Senior Aid Program that helps seniors find employment, a Senior Nutrition Program and a cancer screening program.

Because she meets people "from all walks of life," Ms. Finney said she understands that parents often don't speak up unless there is a crisis, such as when an Annapolis community sought to get Adams Park Elementary re-opened as a neighborhood school.

When parents take the time to express their opinions on issues they feel strongly about, Ms. Finney said, the board should show more respect.

For example, many board meetings last beyond their scheduled ending time. In one case last year parents who wanted to speak on an issue waited until 2 a.m., only to have the board delay its decision until the next meeting.

"There's no way those people can stay all that time. And then they have to come back again?" she said. "In a meeting that invites parents, it should be a little more accommodation."

A classic example of miscommunication, she said, was the handling of the four-period day that will begin this fall at Chesapeake Senior High School.

Mr. Carter ordered the change as an administrative procedure, but was chastised by board members for not seeking their opinion.

"We should have very defined guidelines," Ms. Finney said. "It might even cut down on board meeting time."

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