In a dark, dank high school auditorium Wednesday night, where three out of four hard wooden seats stood upright and empty, those who showed up marked red paper ballots and decided - perhaps - who will be the next member of the Anne Arundel County school board.
Participants shared one microphone with a short cord (later a second microphone was supplied), debating rules changes without understanding the rules of debate, before proceeding to the main event. Two hours later - after five-minute nomination speeches and remarks from each of the two candidates - a vote was taken.
Delegates nominated school board President Paul G. Rudolph for a second five-year term over Crofton educator L. Koh Herlong in a 67-60 vote. One hundred twenty-seven people made their choices known for the person who might help steer a 75,000-student school district.
The vote is advisory. Both names will be submitted to Gov. Parris N. Glendening, who can follow the convention's recommendation or choose someone different. During the past six years, nine board members have been named in Anne Arundel County, and on seven occasions, Glendening has chosen the convention's first choice.
"Paul Rudolph will be the choice of the convention," announced Alan Lang, chairman of the committee that oversees the process. "Hopefully, one of these two will be selected [by the governor]," he said, his voice trailing off as many of the delegates filed out of the Severna Park High School auditorium.
The evening raised the question: Is this any way to choose a school board member?
Two state delegates at the event said no. Dels. Janet Greenip and John R. Leopold saw the sparse attendance and encouraged the convention to open the process to more people. Up to four members of each of the county's nonprofit organizations can serve as convention delegates, but few of them participate. One amendment being considered Wednesday would have allowed any registered voter in the county to participate; it failed amid claims that it would encourage candidates to "pack" the convention with friends and allies.
Under this somewhat antiquated system for selecting school board members, attendance is sporadic, complaints are rampant, and the debate about whether there is a better way to choose a candidate is raised year after year. Some years, the idea of scrapping the process and electing, rather than appointing, the school board rears its head. This year, the focus was on widening participation.
Wednesday, the delegates opted to continue with what has been status quo for several decades.
Urging delegates to vote down the changes, school board member Vaughn Brown cautioned the convention, "It could turn into a popularity contest rather than an actual vetting of school board candidates. I think it subjects this process to a high probability of ... at the very least, a loss of confidence by the governor."
Sharon Puckett, a parent with the Crofton Woods Elementary School PTA, supported the proposedchanges: "We have plenty of people that don't get a voice now because of the process. I've got a feeling it's the closest we're going to get to an elected school board."
An elected school board would be more accountable to parents and others, proponents say. Critics argue that it would be too costly for candidates to run for election, and that because the County Council holds the school board's purse strings, electing board members would make little sense.
Rudolph, 68, a retired engineer, was pleased to be the convention's choice, but said he won't feel confident about this until Glendening makes his official selection. Rudolph, to, said he wonders about interest in the process: "There should be thousands here."
Rudolph gave his short speech after newcomer Herlong. Speaking order was determined by the flip of a coin that landed under a table, causing Lang to crawl on the floor to see the result.
Herlong, 41, an administrator at Anne Arundel Community College, dubbed herself "the future girl."
She spoke about finding creative ways to generate new money and resources for classrooms. She spoke about being a classroom teacher and having spent her own money on supplies and software she knew could benefit her students. "Not only do I understand the budget, but I had to live within it," she said.
"By now, you know that I, with your help, want to knock down that first domino so we can start that forward progress," she said.
Rudolph spoke about budget realities: that the county executive gave the school district only part of what it requested for the coming school year, that many construction projects will have to be delayed.
"Where is the money going to come from?" he asked. "The county doesn't have it. I am a realistic person, and I live in a real world. I don't know how to live in a virtual reality, but that doesn't mean I don't have passion."
Rudolph, who emigrated from Germany after World War II, lived in poverty while he and his family struggled to learn English and acclimate to life in their new country.
"I know that only education can make a difference, and it starts, as it did with me, with a free and appropriate education," he said.