School board hopefuls attend Arundel forum; process' value debated; Some say delegate system fails to offer direct contact with candidates


Attendance at the first of three school board candidate hearings has generated criticism about the effectiveness of the county's school board selection process.

The hearing, sponsored by the School Board Nominating Convention Committee, drew about 50 people to Annapolis Senior High School on Thursday.

"It's no surprise to me that by the time the evening was over there were less than 40 people in attendance from the entire county," said Thomas H. Frank, a delegate from Arundel High School to the School Board Nominating Convention.

Frank and other delegates at the hearing also complained that the convention doesn't allow delegates to question candidates directly. At the hearing, delegates submitted questions to moderator Mark Fontaine, treasurer of the School Board Nominating Convention Committee. Fontaine said he chose questions to cover a range of issues.

Delegates to the convention -- representing community groups, PTAs, PTOs, and other civic or service organizations -- usually select two candidates for each open school board seat for consideration by the governor. About 150 delegates from more than 60 organizations have registered for the convention.

School board member Vaughn L. Brown, who attended the hearing, said the attendance wasn't unusually low.

"I've seen it larger, I've also seen it smaller," said Brown, who noted that delegates are required to attend only one hearing.

"Registering for the School Board Nominating Convention is a little bit like doing your taxes -- people procrastinate," said Steven H. Johnson of Annapolis, one of three candidates for the board seat from Districts 27B and 30 in South County.

"You can't judge the whole process by the turnout at one hearing," said incumbent Michael J. McNelly, who is seeking a second five-year term on the board in the South County seat. "You judge it by whether you get a real cross section of the county."

The four school board candidates fielded questions on topics ranging from student discipline to gifted and talented programs to standardized tests.

Also running for the South County board seat is John A. Roberts of Arnold. Incumbent Janet Bury of Brooklyn Park is unopposed in seeking renomination for the North County District 31 seat.

On the subject of the Maryland School Performance Assessment Program (MSPAP) -- the centerpiece of the state's school reform effort -- all of the candidates said they were unconvinced that the annual tests are an effective way to measure student achievement.

"I'm not sure how much credence I put in the MSPAP," said Bury, a communications professor at Morgan State University. "Some years we catch the ring and some years we don't."

Johnson, a management consultant, said school improvement teams place too much emphasis on doing well on the MSPAP tests.

"I think it has some value but it occupies too much of our mental space," he said.

McNelly said several school boards in the state have concerns about the test.

"It's going to take a group of us to approach the state and say, 'Who wants to look at the process?' " he said.

Roberts questioned the reliability of the test because a school's score can vary greatly from year to year.

"The money budgeted for MSPAP should be used for increasing the salaries of teachers," he said.

In response to a question about a zero-tolerance approach to curbing violence in schools, the incumbents said such a policy against violence and other student behavior problems does not exist in county schools.

They said that in recent years the board tightened guidelines to address widespread discipline problems.

"We took a tough stand on discipline, but we did not take a zero-tolerance stand," said McNelly, a retired police lieutenant who heads a construction monitoring company. "We hold expulsion [appeal] hearings on almost a weekly basis and we have overturned the superintendent on numerous occasions."

Roberts, vice president and general counsel for a technology company, expressed concerns about school administrators making the initial discipline recommendations.

"When you have educators acting as judge and jury I think it's dangerous," he said. "I've heard of too many examples of students expelled from school for a very minor infraction."

Johnson said more services should be in place for suspended or expelled students.

"I think we're responsible for a child's education even though we've expelled them," he said.

Candidates also addressed the issue of gifted and talented education at the hearing.

Bury praised an enrichment program that had been in place at the county's 18 middle schools but was eliminated two years ago because of budget cuts. This year school officials restored the 18 teaching positions, but instead of placing one enrichment teacher at each middle school, the teachers work on a "cluster" basis, with each teacher assigned to more than one school and acting as a consultant to classroom teachers.

Bury said she favored separate programs for more advanced students.

"I do believe some differentiation has to occur," she said.

Johnson suggested identifying the best gifted and talented programs in the country and replicating them in county schools.

Roberts said programs for academically advanced students are "not as crucial" as programs for disabled students.

The remaining candidate hearings will be held Tuesday at Broadneck High School and April 26 at Arundel High School. The nominating convention is scheduled for May 10 at Annapolis High School. All events start at 7 p.m.

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