'Mystery man' nominated for school board

While the public and the press were bandying about well-known Howard County names as candidates to fill a vacant school board seat, relative unknown Joshua M. Kaufman, a 32-year-old father of two, quietly snagged the nomination from County Executive James N. Robey.

If approved by the County Council, Kaufman, who lives in Columbia, would take the seat formerly held by Virginia W. Charles, who resigned from the five-member panel in June with three years left in her tenure, noting health reasons and general frustration with board operations.


Maryland law says the county executive must appoint a replacement, subject to County Council approval, when publicly elected board members leave their posts. This will be the second such appointment for Robey, who added James P. O'Donnell last year after another board member quit.

A statement from Robey's office stated that Kaufman "has a strong and vested interest in bettering the school system." Board members seemed to agree in one breath, and questioned who Kaufman is in another.


"I've never heard of him, but he sounds great," Sandra H. French, the board chairman, said yesterday, setting the precedent for reactions to come.

"I really don't know the man," O'Donnell said.

"He's the mystery man," said board member Courtney Watson.

"I've never heard of him," said Patricia S. Gordon, the board's vice chairman.

County Councilman Christopher J. Merdon said he has never met Kaufman. Councilman Ken Ulman said he was looking forward to meeting him. And council Chairman Guy Guzzone surmised he must have met him sometime - Kaufman is chairman of the county's ethics commission - but he could not recall.

Kaufman acknowledged that he has never been to a school board meeting, and talked only to one member, Watson, on the telephone. But he said he has spent the past few months reading up on school issues and feels confident he can contribute.

"I think what I bring to the table is the ability to step back and to look at all the facts in a diplomatic manner and hopefully suggest solutions that are pragmatic and realistic," he said.

Kaufman, a democracy specialist at the U.S. Agency for International Development in Washington, was born and raised in Los Angeles.


He moved to the area to attend graduate school at George Washington University, where he earned a master's degree in international affairs. His wife, Jessica Kaufman, an assistant attorney general, was studying law at the University of Maryland Law School in Baltimore at the time, and the pair picked Howard County to call home in 1995 because of its location.

"It's far and away the best place to live between the two cities," Kaufman said. "The quality of the schools and the quality of the libraries, we fell in love with it."

Kaufman said that as his family grew - the couple have two sons, Zachary, 4, and Noah, 15 months - so did his interest in county education.

"I wanted to get involved," Kaufman said. "And when the opportunity presented itself, I thought, I'll throw my hat in the ring."

Guzzone said that while he doesn't know Kaufman, he has seen his resume, and the candidate looks pretty good on paper.

"I like the fact that he [lives on] the east side of Route 29," which is traditionally underrepresented on the board, Guzzone said, adding that he also likes that Kaufman will soon have children in Howard schools and has been serving the county on the ethics commission.


"By [the group's] very nature, that makes him someone who has been thinking about and dealing with questions of ethics, and that is always a good thing," Guzzone said.

By the same paper-trail token, though, Merdon believes Kaufman is lacking.

"On paper, the choice doesn't make sense," Merdon said, adding that he is keeping an open mind. "He doesn't have any background in the education system, and he doesn't have any kids in the school system."

"I was very surprised by the selection," Merdon said. "I expected the appointment to come from someone we are familiar working with in education circles. "

The relative anonymity also worries County Councilman Allan H. Kittleman.

"I'm certainly willing to consider him," Kittleman said. "But it will have to be well-demonstrated that this is a good choice; we'll be looking at it very carefully. Let's just say it's not a slam dunk like some others might have been."


Watson, the only board member with children in Howard schools, said she spent about an hour on the phone with Kaufman talking about the commitment the post requires and the difficulties in juggling family and career along with public service.

"He sounded extremely committed to doing the Board of Education job well," Watson said, adding that she is excited that Kaufman is young and has small children because it could "help balance the board in terms of diversity."

Critics who have complained that the board can be too secretive will likely appreciate Kaufman's belief that government business should be transparent and transacted in the light of day whenever possible.

"I think my goal is probably the same goal as anyone on the board, any administrators, teachers, parents," Kaufman said. "To make sure that the quality of schooling continues to be the best in the state, and that every student has the same opportunities."

A public hearing on the nomination will be held Sept. 15, and the County Council will vote on the appointment Oct. 6.