Cook ending six years on school board Chairwoman known for tough stands in fiscally tight times; 'A hard worker'; Observers see her as likely candidate for countywide office


Susan Cook never realized the job could be so painful.

Joining the Howard County school board at the height of the county's financial crisis in 1990, Cook was the first board member never to experience the days when education dollars were plentiful and few financial requests went unfilled.

Instead, she's had six years of coping with tight budgets, which have become the norm for Howard schools.

"I think that when I announced my campaign, we had a sense that something wasn't quite right with the budget," Cook said this week. "But I don't think anyone realized it would be this difficult for this long."

Today, Jane Schuchardt will be sworn into office as Cook's replacement on the board.

Cook ends her term -- including the last two years as the board's chairwoman -- with widespread praise throughout the county for having developed a strong, effective voice for education, particularly in the face of tough financial times.

She decided not to seek re-election because, she said, she didn't want to deal with the school system's financial problems while running an election campaign.

But Cook, a Republican who lives in Columbia's Owen Brown village, may have more politics in her future. Many local observers believe she is sure to run for political office -- probably the County Council or the state legislature.

Looking back at her time on the board, Cook, 48, takes pride in her belief that she and the other board members did all they could to avoid making budget cuts that affect the classroom. She also believes the board has worked to become more open

and accessible in recent years, particularly with the community "Coffee and Conversations" that began in 1992 -- monthly sessions at which parents and others get a chance to talk to board members one-on-one.

"The only time anyone saw the board was up on the dais or on cable TV, and I think it gave the board an appearance of arrogance," Cook said. "I think we've worked to change that."

In meetings, Cook frequently insisted that parents say something good about their children's school at the same time that they offered criticisms.

"I think sometimes we're so caught up with the concerns we have that we forget about all of the good things that are happening in the schools," Cook said.

At the same time, the board has taken tough stands in recent years, including making school boundary decisions that angered communities and steadfastly refusing to back down on appeals from students who violated the system's drug and alcohol policy.

"Susan's moral compass had a reading that always was true north, and she stuck with what she felt was just and right -- something that takes moral courage," said board member Sandra French, who lost to Cook in 1990 before being elected two years later.

French, who lives near Glenelg, is expected to be elected the board's new chairwoman today.

"People saw the public Susan on TV and saw how well she led the meetings, but they didn't see the leader behind the scenes who was equally effective," French said. "She always dealt with people and issues with dignity and fairness and compassion."

Remarkably, Cook seems to have earned few lasting enemies as a member of the nonpartisan board, despite repeatedly butting heads with both Democratic and Republican county leaders over education funding and control over the schools.

"She's had a way of building a consensus both within the board and outside of it, and she's developed a nice network of contacts within the system and [outside] it, especially with the external political pieces," said former board member Dana Hanna, who served as the board's chairman before Cook. "She's probably stronger in that regard than I was.

"When I was attacked or the board was attacked, I would attack back. She's [so] good at being so nice and understanding that she ends up embarrassing people into cooling down," Hanna said.

For example, last year Howard's delegation to the General Assembly considered a bill that would have given the county the power to do performance audits of the school system and a bill that would have required the school board to obtain voter approval if it wanted to adopt a year-round calendar. A third bill would have changed the way school board members are elected.

As chairwoman, Cook was at the forefront of fighting those bills. She and other members called them attacks on the board's sovereignty, and none of the bills moved forward.

She also has scrapped with the County Council and county executive over funding for the schools, yet they generally praise her work and say she's just been doing her job as an advocate for education.

"She's proven herself to be very capable and to be a hard worker," said Republican council member Darrel E. Drown, who

acknowledges that he and Cook regularly disagreed on issues. "She was a lobbyist for education, and she was very good at it. If she decided to run for another office, I think she would be an excellent candidate."

For now, Cook said, she has few specific plans, other than to start looking for a job next month.

But she said she plans to stay involved in the schools. She'll keep an eye on what the board is doing, continue as a member of the executive committee of the PTA at Oakland Mills High School and have time to watch her youngest daughter -- a senior at Oakland Mills -- play lacrosse next spring.

Cook remains decidedly noncommittal as to whether she'll seek a future in politics, even as others speculate that she'd be a strong candidate for either the 2nd District County Council seat held by C. Vernon Gray or one of the District 13A seats in the legislature occupied by Shane Pendergrass and Frank S. Turner. All three lawmakers are Democrats up for re-election in two years.

"I honestly don't know," Cook said. "I hear a lot of talk, but I've been too busy on the board to think too much about it.

"But having spent six years doing this, I care too much about the students in this county to just go away," she said.

Right up until yesterday, Cook continued her duties as board chairwoman, attending a two-day retreat with the rest of the board and top school administrators.

She even went to a meeting last week in which possible boundary changes for next fall were presented to parents, figuring that she might get a few phone calls on the subject even though she'll be long gone from the board by the time it votes in March.

And in her final meeting as a member of the board, just before Thanksgiving, Cook even secured a long-sought -- albeit relatively minor -- victory on the design of a new elementary school.

Cook has sought to enclose school "project rooms" -- smaller rooms in the middle of classroom pods -- in new elementaries with walls, a move that has been rebuffed in the past by other board members. This time, however, she persuaded three others to support the addition of walls -- which board member Stephen Bounds dubbed the "Susan Cook memorial walls."

"I don't like the word memorial -- I'm not dying," she said. "Honorary wall would be OK, though."

Pub Date: 12/12/96

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