Public office, private schools

When J. Tyson Tildon was appointed to the Baltimore Board of Education, he made no effort to hide the fact that his youngest daughter attends a private school.

When people asked why he chose private over public, Tildon explained that he wanted her to begin learning a foreign language at an early age. "At the time, that didn't exist in the public schools," said Tildon, whose three older children attended public schools in Baltimore.


Tildon is one of three public school board members in the Baltimore metropolitan area who have decided that a private education is best for their children. Kenneth A. Jones, who serves with Tildon in Baltimore, and Donald L. Arnold, president of the Baltimore County Board of Education, also have children enrolled in private schools.

"I've been very open in my efforts to improve the public schools," said Tildon, who as chairman of the city school board visits 20 to 30 schools a year. "I believe in public schools."


But critics say it's hypocritical for Tildon and others to ask residents to send their children to schools with which they have found fault.

"Personally, I would be embarrassed to say that my child went to a private school," said Joe Foster, a nine-year member and past president of the Anne Arundel County Board of Education, whose two sons graduated from public schools. "I mean, how can you be an advocate for a system if it's not good enough for your own children?"

It's a question that has tripped up politicians as well. Baltimore Mayor Martin O'Malley was questioned about his decision to send his children to a parochial school in Baltimore County in a debate during the 1999 mayoral campaign. Former President Bill Clinton was chastised for enrolling his daughter, Chelsea, at the private Sidwell Friends School in Washington.

"Both my wife and I think that support of the public school system is critical, especially by people who have a choice and who are more middle-class," said Robert C. Embry Jr., president of the Abell Foundation and a former city and state school board member. "The city school system should not become a repository for poor children."

Embry said that having regular contact with the public schools his children attended helped him understand how the policy decisions he and his colleagues made affected teachers and students.

"I felt I had a more personal stake," Embry said. "I had a better idea of what was going on because I was on PTAs and school improvement teams."

All of which raises the questions: Is it necessary to have children in public schools to be an effective school board member? Aren't there other ways to connect with teachers, administrators and students, such as through volunteer work and community activism?

"I know board members who have no children at all and they are fantastic board members," said Carl W. Smith, executive director of the Maryland Association of Boards of Education. "The old adage of 'You don't have to be a criminal to write about crime,' applies here. The litmus test for board members is in the quality of the individual and what they bring to the job."


No enrollment policy

No rule states that a school board member with children must enroll them in the district he or she serves, said Michael E. Morrill, spokesman for Gov. Parris N. Glendening, who appoints board members in 11 of the state's 24 school districts. Members are elected in the remaining districts.

The appointment process, which in some districts includes a nominating committee, has been criticized by some who say it rewards political connections. Morrill said that's not true. In most cases, he explained, Glendening doesn't know the people he appoints.

When board members take office, they swear an oath to promote public education. And most are dedicated to that goal, Smith said.

"Board members express what I think is a desire to do something to help provide the best education programs for the kids in their communities," he said.

Tildon, Jones and Arnold say they want to see their school systems succeed.


"I have been fully committed to public education," said Arnold, who was appointed to the Baltimore County school board in 1996. This is his second year as board president. His three older children attended public schools in Pennsylvania.

Arnold said he decided to place two of his three younger children at the School of the Cathedral of Mary Our Queen in Baltimore because of religious beliefs. A third child is too young to attend school.

"These are private, family decisions and must be made with the best interests of each child as the foremost consideration," he said in a written statement.

Still, some parents in Baltimore County view Arnold's decision to enroll his children in a private school as a slap in the face. He lives near Pine Grove Elementary School, which ranked 34th out of 102 county elementary schools on the 2000 Maryland School Performance Assessment Program tests. A former school board president's daughter teaches there.

"As a public school parent, you would hope the people who represent you have children in the same system," said Laura Nossel, president of the PTA Council of Baltimore County. "I would like teachers and administrators to have their kids in the system, too, but I can't dictate that."

By choosing private schools, she added, these educators are sending "a bad message about our school system in general to people who are on the outside looking in."


Tildon, who was appointed to the Baltimore City school board in 1997, said he speaks freely about his daughter attending the Bryn Mawr School in Baltimore. However, his colleague Jones, who joined the board last year, said he prefers not to talk about his daughter attending Garrison Forest in Owings Mills. "It's not good for me," he said.

When he was appointed last year, Jones said he enrolled his two children -- one of whom now attends college -- in private schools because he and his wife thought they would "get a significantly better education in the private school system than they would in the public school system."

"I would much rather have been able to send my kids to public schools, but as we took a look at the variation in quality, it was just too great to ignore."

'Need to show' support

That kind of talk bothers Thomas D. Hess, a school board member in Harford County since 1992. His three children attended public schools.

"Board members' children should certainly attend public schools unless there are some extraordinary circumstances to prevent it," he said. "Obviously you need to believe in the system, and you need to show that."


Foster, the school board member from Anne Arundel County, says board members who enroll their children in private schools should be removed.

"You've got to have something at risk, and you know that if your children are in the system you will be much more concerned about the quality of the system," he said. "What could be more important to any parent than the education of their child?

"There are enough people out there who are capable of making good, quality decisions that we don't need people on school boards if they don't have kids in the public schools."