Looking for a way to stand out amid a crowded field of opponents, Carroll County school board candidates tried to find the messages during last night's public forum that would bring voters to their cause.
Then some of them complained that fewer than 100 residents turned out for the event, sponsored by the Carroll County Council of PTAs.
With 22 people campaigning for a pair of open seats on the five-member Board of Education, any public exposure is critical. The 17 candidates who attended the forum at Westminster High School treaded carefully as they explained why they were running and who they believe to be the most important person in the school system.
A common theme was the need to attract and retain quality teachers by raising salaries and offering more resources.
"Our teachers need more support in the classroom," said candidate Susan Holt. "All of us dedicated parents will watch out for our children, but we also need to be watching out for our teachers."
Charles P. Stanley, complaining that too many teachers leave after their first or second year, said: "I wonder if our school board has a system of exit interviews that can determine what's happening."
Thomas L. Shaffer said teachers are too burdened by minor tasks and need to return full time to the basics.
Acknowledging his suggestions were "touchy," Thomas A. Stone said he advocates merit-based pay for teachers and salary bonuses based on performance.
Several candidates focused on improving the curriculum and elevating the level of education offered by the system. Candidate Henry Griese, a senior at Washington College in Chestertown, said he drives by a sign every day calling the Kent County school system the best in Maryland because its test scores were tops in the state this year.
"I'd like to see that sign on our board of education building next year," he said.
John A. Ferrara said if elected he would ensure phonics is a mainstay in elementary reading classes. "Teachers ought to be given an opportunity to teach what works," he said. "You can't even say phonics in some classrooms and I don't understand why that is."
Robert Spring said more computers are needed in classrooms as tools for both teachers and pupils.
The election occurs as the school system grapples with several prickly issues. A grand jury investigation of several troubled school construction projects has eroded the school system's credibility, in the eyes of some parents.
Many county residents have in recent weeks loudly protested a proposal, scheduled to be voted on by the current school board next month, that would redraw the boundaries that determine where children attend school and would force more than 4,000 students to relocate.
The county's unique regulation on eligibility to participate in extracurricular activities -- which punishes students who attend parties where alcohol is served -- is being hotly debated by parents and county residents, many of whom want the regulation changed.
Candidate Cynthia Parr said many have questioned her sanity for wanting to run in the current climate. "I'm not crazy. I'm concerned," Parr said. "I want to see the 27,000 children in this system get the best possible education they can."
Lisa Breslin addressed a subject that is dividing the county: whether Westminster High School is crowded enough that the city needs a second high school.
"You know that school is overcrowded," she said.
The nonpartisan primary election occurs March 7, and the top four vote-getters will run in the November general election. The terms of school board members Joseph D. Mish Jr. and Ann M. Ballard expire this year, and neither is running for re-election.
Two dozen names will appear on the March 7 ballot, but two candidates -- Gregory A. Dorsey and Charles R. Inman -- have said they are dropping from the race and would not actively campaign.
Members of the council of PTAs posed the questions last night, and candidates were given 90 seconds to respond to each.
Asked to name the most important issue in the school system, Stephen M. Nevin said it was not for him to decide. A board member, said Nevin, must let the community prioritize the issues before addressing them on the community's behalf. Fellow candidate Thomas G. Hiltz agreed.
"No one person has the right answers," Hiltz said. "The decision-making process is improved with the insight of the public."
Mary D. Oldewurtel stressed the need for textbooks, quality teachers and a solid curriculum. She suggested offering more advanced courses in high schools.
"Issues change," added John P. Buchheister, suggesting topics such as school construction might not be around in five years but the need for good teachers would be.
Asked why they decided to run, two candidates -- Angela M. Lee and Ralph Grubb-Wheeler -- said they were disturbed when nobody had registered weeks before the registration deadline. Lee said she would bring to the job the perspective of a longtime Carroll parent, and Grubb-Wheeler said his engineering background could help the school system in areas such as technology and transportation.
Each candidate was asked to name the most important person in the school system. Most said the children. Some said teachers, others the superintendent.
"Everybody in the system is important," said James Reter. " the custodian is important. They come in contact with students, and they help keep our schools clean."