Unions representing Carroll County's teachers and school support staff voted late Wednesday to endorse candidates Lisa Breslin and Thomas G. Hiltz for the school board.
Cindy Cummings, president of the Carroll County Education Association, said the unions were in a "delightfully difficult" position this year. "Usually we're trying to pick the best of the worst, but this time we have really good choices."
After individual interviews with the four candidates and a candidate forum that was open only to members of the teachers union and the Carroll Association of School Employees, the unions recommended Breslin and Hiltz over Susan Holt and Steven M. Nevin for two empty seats on the five-member Board of Education.
"They responded very favorably to all our questions, and they want to work collaboratively with other members of the board to find solutions," Cummings said yesterday of Breslin and Hiltz. "They are a voice of reason, and they seem to be very supportive of teachers and support staff."
CCEA has 1,300 teachers as members, and CASE represents 550 secretaries, clerks, licensed practical nurses and instructional assistants. Combined, the groups represent more than half of all school system employees.
A Carroll group interested in promoting the rights of minority and low-income residents also endorsed Breslin and Hiltz yesterday.
"Both are truly interested in the success of all Carroll County's children and are the most respectful of divergent ideas and attitudes," Phyllis Black, chairwoman of Citizens United to Support, wrote in a letter hand-delivered yesterday to The Sun. "We believe that Lisa Breslin and Tom Hiltz are independent thinkers, not rubber stamps for someone else's ideas and have what it takes to put this school system back on the right track."
Her explanation was an apparent reference to the endorsement of Holt and Nevin by school board member Susan W. Krebs, whom she has supported publicly and in letters to local newspapers since February.
Krebs has been on the losing side of a number of high-profile 4-1 votes during her first two years on the board, including the approval of a site for a new high school in Westminster and a vote of support for former Superintendent William H. Hyde before he quit to take a job in Montana.
Nevin and Holt also have been endorsed by - and have accepted help distributing campaign signs from - William M. Bowen Jr. and Jerry L. Brunst, longtime critics of the school system who ran unsuccessfully as a team for board seats four years ago.
Bowen, a retired Baltimore social studies teacher and one-term Harford County Council member, distributed a handout in 1993 with a script titled "Meeting the Enemy" for parents to use when questioning school officials. Brunst, a self-employed landscaper, and his wife chose to home-school their three children in opposition to outcomes-based education, a widely accepted philosophy that sets clear goals for what students should know by the end of a unit, course or year.
Cummings said Holt's and Nevin's association with the pair may have cost them support from the unions.
But Nevin said last night that he thinks it was his positions on teacher raises and collective bargaining fees that most hurt him with the unions.
When questioned by the unions about supporting a 4 percent raise for teachers next year, Nevin said he told them that it would depend on the economy and whether money was available. He also said he did not agree that the unions should be able to charge contract negotiation fees to teachers who choose not to join the union.
"Oh man, I didn't make any friends with that," Nevin said. "I'm a brutally honest person, and sometimes it rubs people the wrong way when they don't hear what they want to hear."
Nevin, who was working for the presidential campaign of Texas Gov. George W. Bush, told The Sun last week that he wouldn't be interested in the union's endorsement if it meant his name would be on literature endorsing Vice President Al Gore for president. The union hasn't decided that issue.
Holt could not be reached for comment last night.
Breslin and Hiltz were pleased with the endorsement.
"I'm very grateful to have the support of teachers and support staff," Hiltz said. "I think it sends an important message about my commitment to education in Carroll County. I think it's a very positive thing."
Breslin said the endorsement "really helps balance out what's been going on. Instead of one board member or one policymaker, these are groups that really help direct the future of our kids."
Over the years, a majority of school board candidates endorsed by the teachers union have won at the polls, Cummings said.
"In a conservative county such as ours, in the general election, people don't tend to listen to the teachers union when picking candidates," she said, referring to the fact that a majority-Republican county will not typically vote for the Democratic presidential candidates supported by educators and labor unions. "But when it comes to the local Board of Education, they know we investigate the candidates very thoroughly and really do our homework."