The Anne Arundel County school board loses its most senior member this week, as Michael J. McNelly of Tracy's Landing attends the last of a decade's worth of meetings.
The 59-year-old advocate for equitable wages often drew authority for his opinions from his life experiences as a military brat, juvenile delinquent, labor negotiator and a veteran of the Anne Arundel County Police Department and the Vietnam War.
Now, McNelly said, he is considering what other activities he might take on to fill the 30-plus hours a week he sometimes spent on county school board business.
It is unclear who will be settling into the seat he vacates. Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. is expected to appoint a replacement for a five-year term representing Annapolis and the eastern portion of southern Anne Arundel County before the school board's meeting next month. The county nominating convention recommended Pamela K. Bukowski, an Annapolis parent and part-time teacher. The second choice was Enrique M. Melendez of Arnold, but the governor is not bound to pick either.
Still, come July 1, McNelly will have more time to live on The Legacy - the 21-foot center-console motorboat he piloted through creeks near Deale during a recent interview.
The watercraft's name is a tribute to his parents and his in-laws, all of whom worked hard but were not able to afford such luxuries, McNelly said.
He said he lived in different places until his father, a career U.S. Army major, was moved to Fort Meade for his final post. McNelly spent his last year at Glen Burnie High School before he enlisted in the Navy at the age of 17 with the promise that his tour would be over before his 21st birthday. His father reluctantly swore him in.
McNelly went to Anne Arundel Community College when he returned and later attended the University of Baltimore, where he majored in criminal justice.
His education took nearly a decade because he worked a swing shift as an Anne Arundel County police officer. Later he served as a lieutenant in charge of the Crimes Against Persons division. Homicide and rape detectives fell under his command. He worked closely with the school system for a number of investigations, such as that of Ronald W. Price, a former Northeast High School teacher convicted of sexually abusing three students.
McNelly retired from the police force in 1994 and later took a job with the Coalition for Fair Contracting, a Camp Springs-based group that monitors major publicly funded construction projects for violations of labor and other laws.
He first considered joining the board in 1994. A friend challenged him to try to do something after hearing McNelly rant about assaults against teachers and other concerns he had about the school system.
He garnered some support from the community, running on the need for a new Tracy's Elementary in Tracy's Landing as well as the need to resolve the crowding at Southern Middle School. Gov. Parris N. Glendening appointed him to his first term in 1995.
During his tenure McNelly often was vigilant about fair business practices and conflict-of-interest issues. "Procurement is what puts people in jail," McNelly said last week.
Board member Paul G. Rudolph joined the school board one year after his departing colleague. "Mike McNelly always expressed his feelings and his concerns and he wasn't bashful about it. I hope that will continue on our board," Rudolph said.
"He got down to the nitty-gritty, and he worked hard during the 10 years he was on the board," Rudolph said. "He will be difficult to replace."
McNelly and Rudolph both were members of the board that hired Superintendent Eric J. Smith in 2002 to raise expectations for the school system.
More recently, McNelly expressed concerns about well-publicized breaches of school security in the northern part of the county and the potential for putting in measures that are more stringent than necessary.
"Maybe we concentrated so much on academics ... hopefully we did not sacrifice the goals for safety," he said.
McNelly said he has not made up his mind about his future, though he is looking forward to reclaiming the time he spends poring over a pile of materials sometimes several inches tall that is delivered to board members before their twice-monthly meetings. Today, McNelly marks his 34th wedding anniversary with his wife, Deborah. He has two adult children, Sean and Kerry.
He is considering elected office, however, and named several positions that will be up next year, including county sheriff and clerk of the court.
He said he plans "to spend the next couple of months talking with people, to see what my options are."