Nine candidates competing for two Howard County school board seats available in December fielded tough questions about education reform with authority last night during a two-hour forum sponsored by the League of Women Voters and the county's PTA Council.
Though only one contender has Board of Education experience - incumbent member James P. O'Donnell - many others have long histories as school system activists and volunteers. Their familiarity was evident as they breezed through weighty topics, including standardized testing, budget priorities and superintendent qualifications.
Howard has fewer than five months to replace Superintendent John R. O'Rourke, whose contract expires June 30, and the board hopefuls offered varying views on what qualities that person should possess.
Mary Kay Sigaty, a former teacher who has served on a half-dozen school system committees, wants someone who has "been in the classroom and understands the ramifications of decisions."
Diane Mikulis, a former Howard County community correspondent for The Sun who has led parent-teacher associations at several schools, said the new superintendent should come from "a system comparable" to Howard's in size and diversity. O'Rourke came from a system in Pittsford, N.Y., that was almost entirely white and had one-eighth the budget, staff and students that Howard has.
Roger Lerner, a business attorney who has coached soccer, is looking for someone who can "project personal warmth."
And Frank Aquino, a business attorney serving on the board's operating-budget advisory committee along with candidate Robert Ballinger, said he wants whoever takes the job to "buy into the comprehensive plan for accelerated school improvement," a strategy developed under O'Rourke that seeks to raise achievement of all students.
Recognizing that the school system likely will have to cut its $480.7 million proposed operating budget request, the board applicants also said they would put programs that affect children first and honor a negotiated agreement to raise teacher salaries.
"The top priority has to be what goes on in the front lines - that's the classroom," said Allen Dyer, a Vietnam veteran and Ellicott City attorney who has sued the school board for alleged open-meetings violations, a topic that sparked the only heated statements last night.
When asked if they would participate in closed meetings given past controversy, O'Donnell said such meetings were necessary - particularly to discuss personnel matters - and legal. But Dyer took offense and accused O'Donnell of taking part in illegal closed meetings.
Lerner said everyone needed to "back off the legalism," because it wasn't helping. But Cynthia Vaillancourt, who owns a pottery shop and has two children in Howard schools, sided with Dyer, saying that there was a "distinct feeling" in the community that public decisions were being made behind closed doors.
On the subject of assessment tests, Ballinger, PTA vice president at Northfield Elementary, acknowledged they were needed, but stressed that the exams are "just one of the tools" for gauging development and said he would urge a broad approach to student and teacher evaluation.
Joanne Heckman, whose platform rests on accountability within the school system, echoed Ballinger's sentiments and said she was against testing as a way to measure teacher effectiveness. She also said she would expect a superintendent to share school administrator evaluations with the board so the reviews would remain open and verifiable.
The March primary will narrow the field to four who will advance to the November election and vie for a four-year board term. Terms expire at the end of the year for Sandra H. French, who has served for nearly 12 years, and O'Donnell, who was appointed to the five-member board in January 2002 as a replacement for Laura Waters, who quit in October 2001.
Howard Board of Education candidate forums
Feb. 18: Noon to 1:30 p.m. at Owen Brown Interfaith Center in Columbia, 7246 Cradlerock Way. Sponsored by the Association of Community Services.
Feb. 18: 7 p.m. to 9 p.m. at Glenelg High School in Glenelg, 14025 Burnt Woods Road. Sponsored by 10 PTAs in the western region of Howard County.
Feb. 19: 7 p.m. to 9 p.m. at Bonnie Branch Middle School in Ellicott City, 4979 Ilchester Road. Sponsored by PTAs of Bonnie Branch Middle and Ilchester Elementary.
Feb. 23: 7 p.m. to 9 p.m. at Hollifield Station Elementary School in Ellicott City, 8701 Stonehouse Dr. Sponsored by six area PTAs.
Feb. 25: 7:30 p.m. to 9 p.m. at Lime Kiln Middle School in Fulton, 11650 Scaggsville Road. Sponsored by PTAs of Lime Kiln Middle and Fulton Elementary.