Rough-edged reformer; Schools: Susan W. Krebs' rookie term as a Carroll County school board member has been marked by strife with colleagues and her desire to talk about the issues.

THE BALTIMORE SUN

She was once Susan W. Krebs, Eldersburg mother of three. Then she fought for state money to build a middle school in her neighborhood and became Susan W. Krebs, ferocious parent advocate who gets her way.

Now, rookie school board member Susan W. Krebs is shaking up the Carroll County school system, demanding accountability and second-guessing everything the administration does.

An outspoken maverick and one-woman champion for reform, she has snatched the spotlight from the rest of the clubby board. Her colleagues don't like it a bit. There was an outburst at a Sept. 1 meeting, and the five-member board plans to use a retreat next month to learn how to get along better.

The public might be losing patience, but not with Krebs. Several people in the audience stood up during the heated discussion this month and said, "We need four new board members" and marched out. Their preference was to keep Krebs and dump everyone else.

To critics, Krebs is an overbearing nuisance. She has become known for holding up board meetings to grill school administrators for answers. Colleagues complain that, even after these long interrogations, she is unwilling to consider any point of view but her own. But supporters -- and they seem to be growing in number -- say she is a savior, someone willing to scrutinize a system beset by school-construction scandals.

"I didn't get on this board because I have a bone to pick," Krebs said. "We have a very successful school system. Is it personal? No. But you're living in a cocoon if you think you can run a $200 million budget without some accountability in place."

Krebs, 39, said she wants the system to focus on improving student achievement and finding resources to give relief to overworked teachers, but that it must first recover from a recent erosion of public confidence.

Many county residents are troubled that the system is facing a $45 million defamation lawsuit filed by contractor James W. Ancel of Towson, who was hired to build Cranberry Station Elementary but then agreed to terminate his contract after disputes with administrators. (The system went on to build Cranberry, but for $1.7 million more than Ancel was to be paid).

And they wonder why an $800,000 wastewater treatment facility was built at Francis Scott Key High last year without necessary state permits.

"I want taxpayers in Carroll County to have an explanation for what happened, an unbiased explanation," Krebs said.

Hillary Rodham Clinton-esque may best describe Krebs in public meetings, where her short brown hair is sculpted perfectly, her business suit is impeccable, and she appears poised -- her eyes look hungry -- to dive head-first into any debate.

Krebs complains that the board has become apathetic, an allegation her colleagues deny.

"To say, carte blanche, 'Mr. Superintendent, go do what you want,' is not why a board of education exists, and this board does not understand that," Krebs said. "I want to see the board discuss issues."

Prefers role of mother

Krebs said she prefers spending time being a mother to being a battle-weary public official. She loves watching soccer games and having a smile ready when the school bus arrives home. She frets when she doesn't have time to cook dinner.

"We used to sit down for dinner together every night," she said. Now, many meals are made of leftovers or made in the microwave. Her family is nothing but supportive -- during her campaign last year, Krebs had to drag her husband, Mark, home from handing out posters at a supermarket to get him to eat.

Mom mode was definitely on display Friday night, as she nibbled on nachos in the football stands at Liberty High School and scanned the program to see which player was her daughter's boyfriend. She waved her Liberty High School Lions pom-pom and gave the cheerleaders an L, I, O, N and S whenever they asked for them.

Fans kept approaching Krebs. They asked her how redistricting in county schools will affect their children. They asked her if it has been fun to receive so much media attention. They begged her not to quit her crusades. She paused each time to chat.

"Remembering names is the toughest part," she said on a walk from the snack bar.

Fraying nerves

Other board members, who have all served at least five years, are growing tired of Krebs' style. They say she needs to learn to work as a teammate and to trust school staff rather than constantly question them at meetings.

Krebs often puts her colleagues on the spot in public. During a recent debate over a planned performance audit, Krebs asked whether they had done their "homework" on how audits are conducted. The term "homework" offended them.

"Next time she does that, I am likely to ask her to stop using that cliche," said veteran board member Joseph Mish Jr. "It absolutely annoys me. When she says that, it is a euphemism for 'You have to read the materials I wanted you to read that support my position.' "

Member C. Scott Stone said his relationship with Krebs has soured to the point where he is constantly thinking about how he can get along with her.

Stone could not control his flare-up Sept. 1 when the board met to discuss school system goals. Krebs asked whether her colleagues had brought their ideas for goals to the meeting. Stone, who had not, and who said he was satisfied with a list of goals generated by the administration, told Krebs to "show some decorum."

Krebs' approach, Stone said, "is to be very direct, to paint the image that you have done your research, you've made up your mind and your decision should prevail."

Krebs is a patient and meticulous skeptic, and her husband of 15 years would be the first to say so. It took Mark Krebs nearly 20 years of courting his childhood friend -- he grew up on a farm in Baltimore County and she grew up in Woodlawn -- before she was convinced that he was right for her. And that was only after he spent an entire day digging her car out from the snow in the blizzard of 1983.

"I'm thorough," Susan Krebs said.

Krebs, who is paid $3,000 a year for being a board member, ran a home-based accounting firm for 12 years and now works part-time at a technology and financial management consulting firm. She remains active in PTAs -- her three children attend Carroll County high, middle and elementary schools.

Fulfilling promise

Krebs is undeterred, even emboldened, after recent feuds with other board members. She said she is only doing what she promised voters.

In the nonpartisan election in November, Krebs, a Republican, won 27 percent of the vote, more than any candidate. At that time, she was known as a sharp-elbowed advocate for parents in southern Carroll County. Her biggest victory may have been winning funding for a new Oklahoma Road Middle School, which opened in 1997 and relieved a crowded Sykesville Middle School.

State Treasurer Richard N. Dixon, who as a former state delegate from Carroll County was ultimately persuaded by Krebs and other parents to help secure the needed money, praised her for being "persistent" but "not pushy."

A Carroll County school board member from 1970 to 1978, Dixon said Krebs will learn with time that government bodies are almost always sluggish.

"Susan always wanted things to get done quicker than they could in the processes of government," Dixon said. "I'm not saying this as a negative. But you have to understand other people's viewpoints. Susan wanted things done yesterday."

Krebs said that in her first few months, she tried to work with other board members behind the scenes. Her colleagues were not interested in talking about issues, Krebs said, so she viewed board meetings as her only venue. "I didn't want to go public with all this," she said. "I wanted us to discuss it as a board, but they didn't. They had the option."

The board has a private retreat planned for next month. There, said board President Gary W. Bauer, members must discuss how to work better as a team. The 4-against-1 rift, Bauer said, is not workable.

"We need either for the four of us to change," he said, "or change Susan in some way."

Pub Date: 9/14/99

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