Consultant Bill Benton organizes for a living. Now he has a volunteer post that will test that talent.
As co-chairman of the new Leadership Committee on School Equity in Howard County, his task -- with fellow leader Mary Ellen Duncan -- is to keep 22 people from a variety of backgrounds on track so that by March 1 they agree on a set of recommendations to improve the school district.
This month, at their first meeting, committee members drafted a list of more than 40 education issues they considered priorities, from continuity in school leadership to the problem of inequitable fund-raising among schools. Now begins the difficult task of deciding what to concentrate on -- and staying focused.
That's where Benton comes in. Like Howard Community College President Duncan, the Ellicott City resident knows how to manage: He has 33 years of experience doing it for local, state, federal and international governments. A self-professed non-expert in education, he sees his role on the committee as not to offer opinions, but to ask questions, draw people out and ensure a report with specific recommendations based on facts is ready by the target date. Members next meet Dec. 9.
"March 1 is a very aggressive deadline but this will force us to do our work and not waste time," he said. "You know what you have to do by a given date, and you just do it."
Benton, 56, a tall man with an imposing figure and an easygoing manner, calls himself a workaholic -- although he's not so much consumed by what he does as fueled by it. Daughter Melissa Benton, 29, worked for him for about six months in 1994 and said she would tire before he did.
"It would be 12 o'clock at night, and we would be working on a project, and my dad would still be filled with energy," said the Virginia resident, laughing. " He's very devoted. Once he gets something in his head, he's pretty hard to shake."
When he helped her figure out which colleges to apply to, encouraging her to make criteria-based lists, he taught her not to let a problem daunt her because of its size, but to break it down and take small steps to solve it.
Longtime friend Luther W. Starnes thinks Benton's work habits make him an "excellent" choice to help lead the school equity committee: Starnes considers the man a master of research and organization, the kind of person who loves to find creative ways to solve problems.
"I've never known anybody who can do so much in such a short time," said Starnes, who first worked with Benton in 1971 when he organized independent agencies into what is now the state Department of Human Resources.
Since 1993, Benton and his wife, Lynn Shaub Benton, have worked together in their consulting firm -- he's vice president and she's in the top role. Benton and Associates helps state and local governments with organization, management and finance, mostly in human services.
His work has steeped him in the concepts of process, accountability and resource allocation -- all issues important for the school system. But he plays down the idea that he's bringing more to the table than the knack for keeping things moving.
"I think I can help the group by drawing out of them their insights," he said. " This is a pretty superstar group. Each person brings something very significant here."
At the first meeting, Benton listened to committee members share diverse thoughts and recorded it all for the record -- boiling down complicated ideas concisely and quickly.
After the gathering, with the priorities set out on eight poster-size pages, he sat down and talked about the point of it all. He's not going to be happy if the report the committee puts together has no impact on the district: "I'd like to say, 'As a result of our work, this, this and this happened,' " he said.
A good sign for such an outcome, in his opinion, is that county politicians, community members and school officials all seem "very hungry for results."
County Executive James N. Robey and school Superintendent Michael E. Hickey formed the committee to address public concerns about differences in facilities, programs and services among the county schools, and ensure older buildings and schools with lagging academic performance receive the resources they need.
Benton wants to do his part to help the schools improve, not for the challenge -- although he likes a challenge -- and not simply because he thinks it's good for all residents. His daughter and his son, Michael, graduated from Centennial High School, and he was thankful that they received a solid education that helped them excel in college.
"He feels like he has a stake in this," said Melissa Benton. "He feels like it's still very important that that quality of education is kept for all children in Howard County."