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Hopefuls share goals for schools


The nine candidates running for the Howard County Board of Education may be nonpartisan, but they're clearly split into two camps: those who want to overhaul the system and those who want to work within it.

Still, the radical thinkers and their pragmatic counterparts seem to have more similarities than differences.

Most have children in Howard schools, most are in their 40s and nearly all profess the same goals: raising the performances of poor and minority students; improving the use of funds; improving efforts to attract and retain teachers; and providing adequate schools.

Tuesday's primary will knock five of them from the race, and four will advance to the November election to vie for two board seats available at the end of the year. In December, terms expire for James P. O'Donnell, who is running for re-election, and Sandra H. French, who is leaving the board after almost 12 years.

Here's who's running:

Frank Aquino

Frank Aquino is a 46-year-old attorney and Ellicott City resident with three children in Howard County schools.

Web site: www.aquinofor

Relevant experience: Chairman of a school system redistricting committee; multiple PTA affiliations; member of the county's Spending Affordability Committee; member of the school board's Operating Budget Review Committee.

Focus: Aquino said he wants to ensure the best use of limited funds by creating a more forward-thinking approach to the budget and updating the financial management system, which he calls "woefully" inadequate.

"How can you properly manage your finances if you have an antiquated system?" said Aquino, who would also like to improve compensation packages for teachers by mixing salaries with attractive benefits.

Another area that has Aquino's attention is improving technology used in instruction by giving kids more computer access and streamlining processes, particularly for teachers, so they can spend their time teaching, not struggling with data.

Robert Ballinger II

Robert Ballinger II is a 37-year-old public information officer with the Maryland Division of Correction. He lives in Ellicott City and has one child in Howard County schools and another nearly school-age.

Web site: www.robertbal

Relevant experience: Vice president of Northfield Elementary PTA; member of the Special Education Citizen Advisory Committee; member of the school board's Operating Budget Review Committee.

Focus: "I think the focus of the campaign is responsibility and leadership," Ballinger said. "I want to make sure school budgets are fiscally sound and try to look at renovations and growth and planning. I'm also all for all-day kindergarten and after-school programs to offer up opportunities for children to be able to hone in and work on their skills."

Ballinger would also like to see a decentralization of decision-making and greater autonomy for principals, something the county has been trying to move away from to ensure equity.

"To get the involvement of teachers and parents and principals in schools, we need to give them ability to make decisions," Ballinger said.

Allen Dyer

Allen Dyer is a 56-year-old public interest attorney and Ellicott City resident with one child in a Howard school and one graduate.

Web site:

Relevant experience: Handled legal cases involving education law and the state's Open Meetings Act; established a parent and student e-mail communication system at River Hill High and a Web site.

Focus: Dyer has based his campaign on three ideas: respect for the law, respect for people and fiscal accountability, which he said can best be illustrated through his creation of a well-trafficked Internet discussion group dedicated to education in Howard County.

"That's sort of key," Dyer said. "It was the genesis of a lot of what I am interested in -- trying to bring to the school system more openness, a flat hierarchy and widespread availability of information in electronic format."

Dyer, who has sued the Howard school board for meeting in private, said he believes "in a very open governmental process with public scrutiny of everything" and he wants a board that reaches out more to the public.

Joanne Heckman

Joanne Heckman is a 48-year-old county volunteer and Columbia resident with one child in a Howard school and another who is home-schooled.

Web site: www.publicschool

Relevant experience: Former member of the school system's Citizens Advisory Committee; chairwoman of the Education Committee for Vision: Howard County, established a nonprofit after-school program in 29 schools.

Focus: "I believe we need more community involvement and parent participation and new ideas and possibilities for choices and innovations," Heckman said. "We can't do any of that without reforming the institution from within, with greater accountability and policies in place to facilitate greater cooperation with the outside world."

Heckman said she would work to increase student access to after-school programs, promote community partnerships that support families, schools and neighborhoods, and guarantee equitable educational opportunities.

"What I'm looking for and what distinguishes me is institutional reform, not a specific action or a specific program," Heckman said.

Roger Lerner

Roger Lerner is a 49-year-old business attorney and Ellicott City resident with one child in a Howard school and two school system graduates.

Web site: www.rogerlerner. com.

Relevant experience: Background in finance and negotiations; community volunteer; former committee member and soccer coach at Wilde Lake High School and member of its boosters club.

Focus: Lerner said he would like to see the county broken into subdistricts created around the high schools to minimize the pain of redistricting. Students would remain within those subdistricts so a direct path from one level of schooling to the next would be clear.

He would also like decision-making returned to teachers and principals and to allow students to take courses at other schools if they are not available at the students' home schools.

"I make no bones about not being an education expert or somebody who came up through the traditional PTA route," Lerner said. "I'm offering a background in business and management of organizations facing financial success and dealing with limited resources and expanding demands."

Diane Mikulis

Diane Mikulis is a 45-year-old free-lance writer who has worked for The Sun and is an Ellicott City resident with three children in Howard schools.

Web site: www.mikulisfor

Relevant experience: Ten years PTA leadership experience; growth-and-planning coordinator at three schools; served on school system redistricting committee; 17 years in business development; Boy Scout leader.

Focus: Mikulis said she would like more parent involvement in the classroom, which she said could help raise student achievement.

"One teacher cannot do it for every student every day," said Mikulis, who volunteers at Bryant Woods Elementary School.

Mikulis also wants to better distribute funds to allow for more competitive teacher salaries and relieve overcrowding with additions and new facilities.

"My concern really is making sure that we're making the right decisions," Mikulis said. "I want to make sure when decisions are made all the information is there, community input is solicited and lots and lots of questions are asked."

James P. O'Donnell

James P. O'Donnell is a 67-year-old retired businessman who lives in Ellicott City and has four children. One is a Howard County graduate.

Web site: www.odonnell2005. com.

Relevant experience: Howard school board member since January 2002; former 10-year Illinois school board member; worked in finance; Howard County Mental Health Authority board member

Focus: O'Donnell said his focus has remained fairly constant since he joined the board two years ago. He wants to continue to raise student achievement, eliminate inequalities in facilities and programs, and increase public involvement in processes.

"I have developed a very collaborative working relationship with [other board members]," O'Donnell said. "And I think [we] agree on the priorities and are committed to working together."

O'Donnell said he was instrumental in getting two elementary schools added to the county's building plan last year and was responsible for getting the administration to "recognize the need to modernize and make more equitable the older schools."

Mary Kay Sigaty

Mary Kay Sigaty is a 53-year-old free-lance theater worker and Columbia resident who has one child in a Howard school and one system graduate.

Web site:

Relevant experience: School improvement team member; served on the Leadership Committee on School Equity as well as the school system's redistricting committee and the Citizens Advisory Committee; former teacher.

Focus: "One of my primary goals is to ensure that all of our students perform at or above grade level," Sigaty said. To help do that, she suggests additional staffing at schools with large percentages of non-native English speakers and poor students.

She'd also like a more competitive compensation package and better staff development opportunities for teachers, as well as greater input for them in decision-making.

"They're the ones who are asked on a daily basis to carry out policies, curriculum and new ideas," Sigaty said. "It's essential for the people who are on the front lines to have a part in developing evaluation, et cetera."

Cynthia Vaillancourt

Cynthia Vaillancourt is a 41-year-old pottery-shop owner who lives in Clarksville and has two children in Howard schools.

Web site: www.cynthiavail

Relevant experience: Small-business knowledge; graduate studies at Harvard University in urban planning and land use; experienced in education laws affecting children with special needs and county special education practices.

Focus: "At this particular time in the school system, I can see what the problem is and how they can fix it," Vaillancourt said. She would use her Harvard training in urban planning to address the mismanagement of facilities leading to overcrowding.

Her plan is to convert Howard to a year-round school system with four tracks of students going to school for nine weeks on and three weeks off, with only three tracks in the building at one time.

"That would reduce overcrowding by 25 percent immediately," said Vaillancourt, who would also like to see later high school start times, charter school proposals and better working conditions for teachers.

An article that ran in yesterday's Howard section misstated the platform of Howard County Board of Education candidate Cynthia Vaillancourt. She suggests the school system consider converting some underperforming and crowded county schools to year-round schedules. She does not suggest the entire county switch to that schedule. The Sun regrets the error.
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