When Thomas G. Hiltz was elected to the Carroll County school board in 2000, the school system was trying to restore public trust after weathering lawsuits, a grand jury investigation and the early retirement of its superintendent.
A debate also raged about the building of a high school in Westminster.
Hiltz won one of two vacant board seats in a race noted for the abundance of candidates (more than 20 at one point); candidates forums (more than 10); and campaign spending (Hiltz shelled out about $10,000, more than half of which came from his own pocket).
A little more than six years later, Hiltz, 47, of Woodbine, has stepped down from that seat because of growing demands at home and in his work for the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission, where he said he is moving into a new management role starting tomorrow.
Hiltz, a Baltimore native and a Naval Academy graduate, was serving his second term. He was board vice president in 2001 and 2002 and president last year. His term would have expired next year.
The father of three said he hit the campaign trail originally because he saw the position as a way to contribute to the community, "to the education of kids in Carroll County, and ultimately, my children." It was his second bid, also having run in 1994.
Since the turmoil that predated him, the school system has "improved dramatically," Hiltz said, to become a healthier organization with more stable leadership, a commitment to openness and the ability to admit when it's wrong.
"I feel like I've contributed to the best of my ability, and I feel like I've had an impact," Hiltz said in an interview last week. "I've been grateful for the opportunity. I've been blessed."
Among his major contributions: fostering the introduction of JROTC to Carroll public schools and a revision of the system's ethics policy - both accomplished after Hiltz's persistent urging of his colleagues.
In 2003, the first Army JROTC unit started at Winters Mill High School, and another would follow at Century High. In the same year, the board approved a more stringent ethics code that sought to eliminate loopholes and gaps, particularly for gifts and conflicts of interest.
Hiltz also weighed in on debates about requiring students to take a freshman seminar and financial literacy class - he opposed making both mandatory - and on voting rights for the board's student representative. In addition, he took a continuing interest in reading instruction, and called for reform to ensure that every child was learning to read.
School officials and board members past and present say Hiltz has left his mark. They described Hiltz, who has a background in nuclear engineering, as conscientious and thoughtful, taking time to analyze each subject from different perspectives before making conclusions.
"I think the school system is going to miss him, and I know I'm going to miss him personally," Superintendent Charles I. Ecker said. "He was interested in making things better for student learning, and he raised a lot of good questions."
Yet even as Hiltz asked those questions, he kept discussions professional and remained open to criticism, said Donald Pyles, director of middle schools.
"We're going to miss his reasonable and rational investigation of concerns and willingness to change his mind," Pyles said.
Ecker said he's waiting to hear from the governor about the next steps in selecting someone to fill Hiltz's seat.
When board member Laura K. Rhodes resigned in 2005, the board was allowed to call for potential candidates to replace her, interview them publicly and then submit its recommendations to the governor. If Gov. Martin O'Malley approves, the same process would be set in motion, Ecker said.
Board President Gary W. Bauer, Vice President Cynthia L. Foley and board member Patricia W. Gadberry said they would miss Hiltz's thorough approach to the issues.
"He was a team player," Bauer said.
"He thought of things that I didn't think of," Gadberry said. "He studied issues in great detail."
Gadberry said she felt a difference with Hiltz's absence at last week's administrative board meeting, which took place a day after his resignation was officially announced.
"I really did look at Tom as one of my role models," she said. "I really respected his opinion, and I appreciated his logic, judgment and common sense."
Former board member Susan Holt, who won the other vacant school board seat in the 2000 election, said she found Hiltz "very analytical," striving to make decisions based on facts instead of emotions.
"He wasn't going to be swayed by just an emotional plea if he felt it just wasn't right," Holt said. "He wanted to see the data."
But in whatever he did, Holt and Foley said, Hiltz did it with students and the school system in mind.
"He definitely was not a selfish board member," Holt said. "Some board members come in, and it's all about their kids. I never saw that with Tom. If there was an issue that affected his kids, it's because it also affected others."