School board candidates fumble facts Only hopeful avoiding blunders is outside country; 'Bright enough' to recoup; Forums offer glimpses into knowledge gap



An article in Tuesday's Howard County edition of The Sun incorrectly said four of five candidates competing in the Howard County school board primary have made factual misstatements about school issues. In recent public questioning about County Council performance audits of the schools, two of the candidates -- Jane Schuchardt and Francine Wishnick -- neglected in their answers to note a key development in the debate: that a bill that would allow the council to perform the audits had just been killed by the county's State House delegation. However, in their answers to that question, the two did not make factual misstatements.

As the candidates for the Howard County school board make their rounds before local groups, one point has become clear: The only one who hasn't made an erroneous statement about the Howard schools is the one who's been out of the country for most of the campaign.

The verbal gaffes -- common throughout candidate forums being held in advance of the March 5 primary -- offer glimpses of candidates' lack of knowledge about the Howard schools.

This is in addition to the tendency of all of the board candidates -- perhaps in line with candidates for every office -- to evade questions or not give clear, concise answers.

That's not to say that the candidates are avoiding serious positions -- including some contrary to the current board's policies.

But it's the mistakes, irrelevant answers and seeming lack of familiarity with Howard schools -- particularly on the part of two of the candidates -- that have made some of the most enduring impressions at recent community meetings.

Virginia Charles has been the only candidate who hasn't blundered. She has missed all the community meetings because she has been overseas most of this month on a long-scheduled trip to India and Europe with her husband.

Consider these recent statements by the four of the five other candidates for the one open board seat:

At a Feb. 10 forum sponsored by the African-American Coalition of Howard County, the candidates were asked how they would trim the operating budget by $1.5 million. Arthur Neal Willoughby's response was: "Create a municipal bond program in Howard County" and "take it out of construction" by building cheaper schools.

School construction is part of Howard's capital budget -- not the operating budget -- and Howard schools already are built through a combination of bonds and state funding.

* At the same forum, Mr. Willoughby and another candidate, Vincent Pugliese, said the school board needs to stop building schools using the open-space design.

Howard hasn't built schools based on that concept in at least a decade.

* When the four candidates were asked at a recent forum whether the Howard County Council should be permitted to conduct performance audits of Howard schools, none indicated awareness that a state bill to allow such audits already had been defeated by the legislative delegation.

Just one of the four candidates -- Francine Wishnick -- indicated that she knew anything of the recent conflicts among the school board, council and the local delegation over the proposed performance audits.

* As candidates addressed technological inequities in Howard schools at a recent forum, just two of them -- Ms. Wishnick and Jane Schuchardt -- indicated they were aware of the school system's three-year plan to buy new computers for older schools.

Neither Mr. Willoughby nor Mr. Pugliese mentioned the program, instead saying the school board had not done anything to address technological inequities.

* When asked about an increasing number of students in classes, Mr. Pugliese said he would correct the problem by using portable classrooms. But portable classrooms provide only extra classrooms and do not deal with rising student-teacher ratios.

* To justify his opposition to the school system's trial of a school-based management system, Mr. Willoughby has pointed to problems at certain schools -- ones that are not participating in the project.

Putting on a show

While answering questions before the Howard County Economic Forum yesterday afternoon, the four candidates as a group avoided factual misstatements, but each strayed widely into unrelated topics or their basic stump speeches.

To some extent, the community forums have been more of a show than a place to show off deep knowledge about Howard schools.

For example, Mr. Willoughby has taken to spinning a basketball on his finger as he gives part of his stump speech, talking about how important it is to mesmerize children in teaching them -- a feat that did not seem to impress the dozen residents attending the economic form's gathering yesterday.

One candidate even has tried to turn his lack of familiarity with Howard schools into an electoral advantage, saying he would bring his philosophy to the board rather than knowledge about every school program.

"I may not be versed on all these policies and words," Mr. Pugliese said in response to a question about school-based management. "The only thing I know in all the years I taught was to be as close to my students as possible, regardless of their race or nationality."

Winning support

Candidates' lack of knowledge about the school system appears to have done little to diminish their support.

Despite his confusion over capital and operating budgets during the African-American coalition's forum, Mr. Willoughby -- the only black candidate in the race -- won the group's endorsement yesterday.

"It's a concern to us, but we think we can make adjustments," said Sherman Howell, the coalition's vice president for legislative affairs. "We like his focus on math and technology and he understands the importance of reducing the academic gap between black and white students.

"If you don't know the difference between operating budgets and capital budgets, it's true that could be a problem to fix that gap, but that's not a killer in our estimation. He's a bright enough guy that he can recoup," Mr. Howell said.

Meanwhile, some of the candidates have been taking strong positions -- in some cases, positions contrary to the prevailing views of the school board.

Taking stands

Most notably, Mr. Willoughby came out in favor of putting religion the classroom during a forum before the Columbia Democratic Club.

"I am for religion and moments of silence in the school," Mr. Willoughby said. "We have guns in the school and have tossed the religion out. Let's toss the guns out instead and bring back the religion.

"I would not make it mandatory, but I would bring religion into the classroom. I am for religion and I am for silence. That can either break or make me," he said.

At the same meeting, the other three candidates rejected the idea of bringing religion into the classroom, calling it a matter of personal choice that shouldn't be forced on students.

They did say that an occasional moment of silence is acceptable in such instances as recognizing the death of a teacher or student.

Three of the four candidates also have said they believe that the County Council should be able to conduct performance audits of the school system.

The current board has opposed council audits, preferring that they be conducted by a neutral third party. Ms. Wishnick also is against council audits, siding with the board in support of a plan for the Maryland Department of Education to do them.

All four candidates have criticized the school system's technology magnet program, which is scheduled to begin in the fall in Long Reach and River Hill high schools.

For example, Ms. Wishnick has questioned "the hype" attached to the program and whether the school system ought to spend $400,000 next year for transportation of the magnet program's students to the two schools.

"If we were adopting it today, I'm not sure we'd approve it because of the cost," she said.

Copyright © 2019, The Baltimore Sun, a Baltimore Sun Media Group publication | Place an Ad