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7 vying for seats on school board Primary election tomorrow to narrow the field to four; Two spots available; New board will choose successor to Hickey for superintendent


Seven candidates competing for two Howard County school board seats will face off in tomorrow's nonpartisan primary election, which will narrow the field to four.

The four top vote-getters will advance from the primary to the Nov. 3 general election. Along with one incumbent -- former English teacher Sandra H. French -- the diverse group includes six others who have raised issues ranging from student discipline to class sizes to the responsiveness of education officials.

The six are transportation manager Glenn Amato; lawyer Lee S. Ashmore; private school teacher Alfreda Gill; accountant Jerry D. Johnston; former substitute teacher Laura Waters; and engineer Arthur Neal Willoughby.

Johnston is no relation to board member Linda Johnston, who is not running for re-election.

Though the new board will choose the replacement for Superintendent Michael E. Hickey, who will retire in two years, the race has remained a low-key affair.

"This is a system with 40,000 kids," Ashmore said. "There doesn't seem to be a great deal of interest in who [the board members] are. It's fairly remarkable when you think about it. I think it will heat up after the primaries."

The PTA Council of Howard County plans a round-table discussion next month that will include the four primary survivors running for the six-year terms that pay $9,900 annually.

Profiles of the candidates:

Glenn Amato

Amato, a Hanover resident who is a transportation manager for Ryder Trucks, decided to enter the race after battling the school system over the education of his son Gordon.

Amato said the school system continued to pass Gordon -- who suffers from attention deficit disorder and dyslexia -- though he wasn't learning basic math and reading skills. Gordon could not read in the first grade, but school officials said he could, Amato said.

"We took the books away from him and gave him brand new books that he hadn't seen and he couldn't read the words," said Amato, 42. "He had memorized all the books. They said to us, 'Don't worry about it. We're working on this.' "

Amato said similar problems continued through the end of fifth grade, until he and his wife enrolled Gordon in Anne Arundel County's Summit School for learning-disabled children, which costs $15,800 a year, he said. Despite meetings with school officials about Gordon's education, Amato insists that the school system remained uncooperative.

Gordon is a sixth-grader at the Summit School, where he has made significant progress, Amato said.

"The issue is that all children have the right, the obligation from the school system to educate them to their fullest possible potential," Amato said. "I'm not running for revenge. It's a six-year commitment."

Amato said his main concern is that school officials be accountable to students and parents. He also is concerned about classroom size, he said. Amato has three other children enrolled in Howard County schools.

"My favorite word is going to be 'Why?' " Amato said.

Lee S. Ashmore

Lee S. Ashmore doesn't have any children, but the Columbia lawyer sees that as an advantage in his campaign.

"You're not there for your child. You're there for the entire system," said Ashmore, 38. "Inevitably, someone is going to see the system through the experience of their child. A broader view eliminates any question of bias."

Ashmore said he decided to run for the school board because he was concerned about the schools' ability to keep pace with Howard County's growth. Friends also encouraged him to run, saying they were dissatisfied with the other candidates, he said.

The Columbia resident said the school system should focus on building enough schools and facilities to keep pace with the increasing number of students.

"Everyone likes smaller class sizes, but we're just not in a position financially to think about that," Ashmore said. "Maybe someday."

Ashmore said the selection of the next superintendent, school safety and special education are other major issues. The candidate believes his experience as a mediator gives him another significant advantage.

"I think those skills will come in handy for me," Ashmore said. "My approach would be to talk to the teachers; try to find a solution that takes into account the problems and the concerns of all these groups as opposed to looking at it through my own personal window."

Sandra H. French

After spending six years as a school board member, Sandra H. French is hoping for another term.

"When it starts to be more red lights than green lights, why are you still in this job?" said French, an Ellicott City resident who has been an English teacher at Glen Burnie High School in Anne Arundel County and school board chairwoman. "For me, the green light is student achievement. All of the problems are problems that are critical to our children and to our nation to succeed and thrive."

French said she believes she has a sophisticated understanding of complex education issues that comes from sitting through countless meetings and poring over budgets. She points to her eight years of experience as a teacher and as a parent.

"I believe that I have the depth of understanding and I have the ability to see how so many of our problems are interconnected -- how one change affects another area positively or negatively," French said. "I can see the interplay of educational decisions."

French noted that some of the people running for school board "have never sat through one entire meeting."

"Some of them have come, stayed for an hour and left. But we're there for five more hours."

French said a major issue is ensuring equity among all of Howard County's schools in terms of resources and educational programs. Just as the schools in outlying Howard County felt neglected 15 years ago, some Columbia schools now feel the same way, French said.

French said the achievement gap among students of different races "is a genuine concern."

"What we have to do is look at our special education population and ask why is there a disproportionate number of African-American students in there?" she said.

While French acknowledges reduction of class sizes as a popular proposition, it's an expensive one, she said.

"If we were to reduce class size by just one student, that's $3 million," French said. "Reducing by one does not make an impact. You have to take them down by four or five."

Alfreda Gill

Alfreda Gill wants Howard County's students and teachers to feel safe in their schools.

But Gill, a private school teacher for 20 years, fears that overpopulated classrooms may lead to discipline problems. Safety and classroom size are two important issues for the Howard County school system, said Gill, a teacher at Love of Learning Montessori School in Columbia.

"If a class has 30 children per teacher, there are some children who can get one-to-one attention," Gill, 51, said. "Then there will be the children who will not be able to benefit from the resources the teacher provides. The child becomes a discipline problem when unattended."

Though her education career has been in the private sector, Gill has had three children in the Howard County public school system, two of whom have graduated.

The Clarksville resident said the special education program is an important issue, as is reading.

"My major concern is for the students," Gill said. "I want to give my help as much as possible."

Jerry D. Johnston

Second-time candidate Jerry D. Johnston doesn't consider himself a political creature. So entering the nonpartisan school board race seemed like an ideal opportunity to try public service, the accountant said.

"This is something where I don't have to be part of a good-old-boy network," said Johnston, an Ellicott City resident.

Johnston, who has been a regular at school board meetings in recent months, said his motivation for running for a school board seat is simple.

"I have a big family, so kids are very important to me," said Johnston, who has three children in the Howard County school system. "We need to make sure that they have a good education. I think I'm in a position to be able to have some influence so that they are educated."

Johnston, who ran unsuccessfully for the school board six years ago, said class size and safety are major issues. In addition to reducing the number of students per classroom, Johnston, 54, said he would like the school system to focus more on technology as the 21st century looms.

The candidate said the low-key nature of the school board race hasn't been a problem for his campaign. Johnston said he goes out with a campaign sign every morning and waves at commuters as they drive by.

"I really don't think people are focusing on the election," Johnston said. "Most people don't perceive that it's a major issue. I think that may be incorrect."

Laura Waters

As a Howard County substitute teacher in the 1980s, Laura Waters didn't have many discipline problems with her students, she said. A decade later, things had changed.

"When I came back in 1991, it was completely different," Waters said. "I was really upset by this. It seemed to me that kids were not learning to respect rules or authority."

Waters, a Columbia resident, said a consistent discipline policy with "clearly written rules" is central to the success of the county's schools. Unruly children prevent themselves and others from getting a proper education, she said.

Waters, 51, said that teachers and school-based administrators don't always get the support they need to enforce rules.

"I want to change things. I want children to learn to follow rules," Waters said. "Disciplining children shows them you care about them. I think that academic programs are not going to succeed unless there's discipline in the school."

Waters said alternative settings for disruptive children such as the Gateway School are "the right idea," but that she would like to see more done in that arena, perhaps adding vocational training.

The candidate said she is concerned about the test-score gap among children of different races and wants to make sure elementary school children learn basic skills.

Arthur Neal Willoughby

Mechanical engineer Arthur Neal Willoughby wants to be an advocate for technology and science on the school board. He ran unsuccessfully for a seat six years ago, but the Jessup resident said he's sticking to the old adage, "If you don't succeed, try, try again."

"I wanted to see all the children get the best education they could and get the same quality education I received when I was at their ages," said Willoughby, 40, who works for the Department of Defense and teaches engineering classes at Morgan State University.

"I did not see people like myself being reflected on the school board. There are no mathematicians and engineers. We [need] to focus heavily in the math and science area -- that's what the future is demanding. We've got to give industry what they want so we can keep our children well-positioned for a global economy."

Willoughby said he would also like the school system's physical education and music programs to be beefed up.

"A lot of our music areas are really not as well-equipped as they could be," Willoughby said. "Music and math are closely related." In addition, Willoughby wants the school system to take a look at teachers' salaries and consider raising them.

"We're no longer No. 1 or No. 2," Willoughby said of Howard County's teacher salary scale among counties in the state. "We've been doing very well with our [Maryland School Performance Assessment Program] testing and our teachers should be rewarded because of this."

Pub Date: 9/14/98

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