One of the five candidates for Howard County school board is raising an issue that's making the other four uncomfortable: race.
At a recent NAACP candidate forum, Vincent Pugliese, a retired Montgomery County teacher who lives in Columbia, repeatedly used a highly charged racial epithet in regard to blacks while relating anecdotes decrying racism.
Mr. Pugliese also has declared that he would like to do away with the schools' Black History Month, which he says stresses ethnic differences rather than unity.
In a county that prides itself on racial harmony and sensitivity, Mr. Pugliese's comments have left some somewhat speechless and others declining to speak publicly.
No one objected to his remarks at the forum last week sponsored by the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. But the group's officials now refuse to talk to a reporter about what Mr. Pugliese said. They say they want to discuss it among themselves at an executive board meeting next week.
And few others -- including board candidates and county educators -- are particularly eager to discuss it.
"I would rather that a race issue not come out," said board candidate and retired Howard teacher Jane Schuchardt, echoing the positions of several other board candidates. "I'd rather take children in schools as a whole and think about doing what's best for all students."
Nevertheless, she said of the NAACP meeting, in which she participated:
"At a meeting that begins with a Bible reading and a prayer, I was pretty surprised to hear profanity coming from a candidate. I don't think he was trying to offend anyone, but it's not my style."
Civil engineer Arthur Neal Willoughby, the race's only black candidate, agreed. "He probably shouldn't have painted such a graphic picture. I was surprised to hear it in Howard County," Mr. Willoughby said.
In an interview yesterday, Mr. Pugliese said that he wasn't seeking to upset anyone, but that the community needs to overcome its reluctance to discuss race frankly.
"I worry about the lack of sincerity I see," he said. "We seem to be so careful about what we're saying that we're not being honest anymore."
When the Howard school board passed a proclamation recognizing Black History Month at its meeting Jan. 25, Mr. Pugliese tried to object. But rules governing board meetings prevented him from speaking.
"It is an American tragedy and educational shame that we must have a Black History Month," Mr. Pugliese said after the meeting.
Although he acknowledged that he's not familiar with Howard's curriculum, he said the history of all races should be taught throughout the school year and that designating a black history month fosters division.
"Why not have an Italian month and Jewish month and an Arab month and so on?" he said. "We're becoming separated. We're becoming the hyphenated-American thing that I dislike so much."
Other candidates -- as well as the NAACP's education committee chairwoman, Natalie Woodson -- lauded Mr. Pugliese's goal of ensuring that black history is incorporated into Howard's total curriculum. But they said designating February as Black History Month serves an important purpose.
"We need to encourage people's pride in themselves and their heritage, and from that point of view I see nothing wrong with Black History Month," said candidate and PTA activist Virginia Charles.
School officials say that Howard's curriculum has been adapted in the last seven years to include more history of all groups.
Associate Superintendent Sandra Erickson compared the proclamation of Black History Month to one designating a month for art appreciation. "We don't just teach art in that month," she said. "We don't just teach black history in February, either."