Deborah Kendig's departure marks end of an era


1991 was a lousy year: The nation was in an economic slump, and Deborah Kendig was among five school board members forced to take back teachers' pay raises because of budget cutbacks, despite a new, three-year contract with them.

Teachers took it as a slap in the face. They instituted a tough work-to-rule policy, refusing to work outside school hours. They didn't want to chaperon dances, write letters of recommendation or take part in after-school events.

All of this hurt Ms. Kendig, who had the backing of the teachers union in her school board bid.

"I took it all too personally," Ms. Kendig said. "I think that's why I started growing tumors."

The abdominal tumors were malignant. When discovered two years later, they had spread so far that doctors predicted she TTC had a 20 percent chance of surviving.

But the feisty and sometimes sharp-tongued school board member vowed to lick her illness. She skipped several crucial school board meetings to recover from surgery. Then she returned, scheduling experimental chemotherapy around her civic duties.

Now at age 55, the longtime Ellicott City resident with trademark short white hair feels confident and looks better than ever -- just in time for her to step down from office after serving public school parents and their children for 12 years.

"I'm ready to go," she said recently at her 85-year-old frame house. "I really do think it's time for new blood, new ways of thinking."

But that's not the only reason the soon-to-be grandmother bids adieu after two terms. She says she's gotten weary of defending her decisions on such matters as weighted grading and redistricting.

"I'm convinced that stress burdens your immune system," she said. "To stay alive, I'm reducing stress. That's getting off the board."

Four candidates are vying for her seat and another one being vacated by school board chairman Dana Hanna, who announced several months ago he would not seek re-election so he could concentrate on his family and his business life.

The new board will have difficult issues to tackle -- among them, the county's booming growth and its effects on school construction, human relations and inclusion of special education students.

In addition, members will have to develop working relations among themselves and with the administrative staff.

Candidate Jamie Kendrick, 19, who wants to promote parent and community involvement, has criticized current board members. And Stephen Bounds questions the school system's emphasis on self-esteem and wants a superintendent search when Michael E. Hickey's term expires in two years.

The other two candidates are Karen Campbell, a former school board member, and Delroy Cornick, who wants to streamline the budget.

The reshaping of the board comes at a time when school officials are charting plans to take the school system into the next century, and educators say Ms. Kendig's departure leaves a great void. She's widely known as a longtime education activist with encyclopedic knowledge of the county school system.

"She really has been the repository of important knowledge about the school system," said Dr. Hickey. "To have that almost instant recall of such a legacy of knowledge about education in Howard County is really something to be envied. I know we're going to miss that."

"When Debbie talks to you, you know she's talking about something that she feels deeply about," Dr. Hickey said. "There's no beating around the bush."

"She also has the courage to stand up for what she thinks is correct, although it may not be the most popular thinking at the moment," said Frederick Schoenbrodt, a former school board member who has known her since 1978. "She's always had the knack of looking at both sides of the coin. The county is going to miss her."

Ms. Kendig is a homemaker who took great joy in raising money for schools and sending out newsletters to other parent volunteers.

During her tenure, she helped establish the county's successful gifted and talented program and highly touted school-business partnerships.

She also worked to give schools more management control of budgets and personnel and acted as a peacemaker among board members when discussions got out of hand.

The Maryland Association of Boards of Education gave her the prestigious Charles W. Willis Memorial Award in 1992, recognizing her outstanding contribution to education through school board service.

She's irritated several parents during her time. During a meeting last year, she gave a strongly worded speech in which she criticized Dorsey Hall parents for opposing a redistricting move to Wilde Lake High School. Parents said they felt "bullied" after the meeting.

But her outspokenness also has earned her respect among some who have not seen eye to eye with her all the time.

"At least she's been there to listen," said James Swab, the county's teachers union president. "She deserves particular credit for making our schools among the best in the nation."

Ms. Kendig, a two-time county PTA Council president, first took office in 1983, when the county's 23,000-student population was dropping by 400 to 500 students a year. The county was closing schools instead of building them.

She ran for a second term because of her continuing concern about high schools and the way they prepare students for the future.

"I was concerned, as I am now, that kids who don't go to collegewe didn't do well by them," she said.

Some of the recent criticisms that parents and the community have lodged against the school board are misplaced, she says.

Parents who complain that the school system has neglected aging schools to build new technologically advanced ones don't know the history, she said. Since she first took office, the school system renovated or built additions to more than half of the schools. It wasn't until the student population began mushrooming that the school system was forced to shift money to build new schools, she said.

And teachers who complain about low pay scales should realize that starting pay for new teachers has nearly doubled in 11 years to $26,600 this year, she said.

The issue of year-round education, a sure-fire question at every school board candidates' question-and-answer forum, is really a moot point, Ms. Kendig said.

"I think the politicians have backed away from it because the community has said we don't want it," she said. "On the other hand, if there's a capital budget problem, then it becomes a spending issue."

She looks forward to her retirement.

She's been slowly discarding her old school board reports and memorandums to make room for the stacks of books on Abraham Lincoln and the Civil War that she's been yearning to read. And she plans to volunteer driving cancer patients to hospitals.

"I'm going to miss the people," she said. "School people are really caring. You seldom find more caring people."

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