School board race low-key

THE BALTIMORE SUN

Laura K. Rhodes has signs, T-shirts, tote bags, pamphlets and car window placards plastered with her name and her candidacy for the Carroll school board.

John F. Murray Jr. let his children design and color his stenciled signs -- all eight of them -- which he has strategically placed throughout the county. His most reliable campaign strategy, he says, involves approaching anyone he can find in Wal-Mart and Safeway and introducing himself.

Incumbent C. Scott Stone won't bother with campaign signs until after tomorrow's primary election.

No matter the differences in their campaign styles, the candidates for the Carroll County Board of Education agree on one thing: This, at least so far, is one heck of a low-key race.

Overshadowed by the hard-fought county commissioners election and the race for a newly created legislative seat in South Carroll, the nonpartisan school board campaign has plodded along without the hectic schedule of forums, banner headlines and spending frenzies that made the board election two years ago one of the most-watched and closely fought in years.

It doesn't help stoke interest in the race, the candidates say, that tomorrow's vote will knock only one of seven contenders out of the running for three open seats on the five-member board.

"It's a lot less contentious," Rhodes said of this year's primary. "The focus of displeasure in the county has shifted to a different group of county elected officials. That's the county commissioners, and I'm glad I'm not in that race."

This year's slow start is a far cry from the school board election of 2000 when the Carroll school system was embroiled in multimillion-dollar lawsuits and a county grand jury investigation into bungled school construction projects and the board's management style.

Then, 24 candidates filed to run for two open seats. They sat through two dozen debates and forums during an 11-month campaign. And the four contenders who made it to the general election outspent every other cast of school board candidates in county history. Thomas G. Hiltz spent about $10,620 in his successful bid to the board, including about $6,000 from his own wallet.

This year's candidates were less than three hours from not even having a primary election when James E. Reter, the school system's former comptroller and a certified public accountant, threw his hat in the ring on the evening of the filing deadline.

Reter and his opponents are spending far less than their predecessors. Three have signed affidavits with the Board of Elections pledging to keep their campaign expenses below $1,000, and the four others have campaigned so far almost exclusively on $2,000 or less of their own money, according to campaign finance reports filed with the county elections board.

They also seem less concerned with attending the few scheduled campaign events -- whereas the candidates of 2000 didn't dare skip an event.

"I'm not doing too much at this point," incumbent Gary W. Bauer said. "This has just been a much quieter election."

He was one of four school board candidates who missed the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People's election forum last month, though he sent his wife to read a statement on his behalf.

Fireworks aren't expected until the general election, but the groundwork for some drama has been laid: Unions representing 2,300 public school employees refused to endorse either of the current board members seeking re-election and recommended only Rhodes and Murray, though three seats are open.

And the late entrance of three fiscally conservative candidates means that three school system insiders -- incumbents Stone and Bauer and parent activist Rhodes -- have been pitted against three longtime critics -- Reter, Jerry L. Brunst and William M. Bowen Jr.

Murray, 45, a software compliance officer with the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, grew up in Carroll County but just moved back last year. He served four years on the elected board that governs Burke Centre, Va., a planned community of about 6,000 homes. He and his fiancee, Mary Rizzardi, whom he met in January last year, are raising three children who attend Carroll schools. They live outside Mount Airy.

Brunst, 46, a self-employed landscaper who home-schools his children outside Westminster, and Bowen, 72, of Westminster, a retired Baltimore social studies teacher and one-term Harford County councilman, unsuccessfully ran as a team for the school board in 1996. Both have been critical of what they consider the school district's departure from traditional school values and of school spending.

Brunst, for instance, recently criticized teachers' "traditional whine" that they aren't paid enough, and he detailed in a letter to newspapers the salaries of five teachers who spoke at a school board meeting.

Attempts to reach Brunst and Bowen for comment last week were unsuccessful.

Reter, 70, of Westminster, is a former chief auditor for the state Department of Education. He ran for the board in 1998 and 2000 and is a frequent critic of the school board and administration. At the board's public hearings, he has spoken against school redistricting plans and construction of Winters Mill High School, which opened this year. At a budget hearing this year, he urged board members to hire teachers and buy school supplies rather than increase employee pay.

Divorced, Reter has three children who graduated from Westminster High.

Stone, 51, a systems and program analyst with Goucher College, is finishing his 10th year on the board. He and his wife of 27 years, Theresa, have two children who graduated from North Carroll High. The Stones live in Hampstead.

Bauer, 55, a pump operator with the Baltimore City Fire Department, is finishing his eighth year on the board. He and his wife of 29 years have two children. Their daughter graduated from North Carroll High. Their son graduated from the Church of the Open Door's Carroll Christian Academy in Westminster, having transferred to the private school after he was attacked in seventh grade. The Bauers live in Hampstead.

Rhodes, 40, a former psychologist and real estate agent, describes herself as a "professional full-time volunteer," lending a hand to her children's schools, homeowners association, swim club board and -- most often -- state and county parent-teacher groups. She and her husband, Bill, have two children in Carroll schools. They live in Taylorsville.

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