Howard school board candidates make final push before Tuesday election

On a day that the storm Sandy kept most of the region indoors, Howard school board candidate Robert Ballinger saw an opportunity. With Election Day about a week away, he figured he'd reach out via email to Howard residents who were likely at home surfing the Web.

He and his campaign supporters set out to contact 5,000 registered voters, reminding them about early voting and conveying his vision for the county's school system.

Ballinger is one of a field of six candidates, including two incumbents, vying for three seats on the school board in Tuesday's election.

The two candidates up for re-election are Janet Siddiqui, who received the most votes during April's primary, and Ellen Flynn Giles, who got the third-highest number of votes. Allen Dyer, who has accused Giles, Siddiqui and two other members of the seven-seat panel of forming a voting bloc, lost in his re-election bid in the primary, which had 14 candidates.

The challengers in the race, including Ballinger, have repeatedly stressed the importance of reaching out to the community and working past personality conflicts, traits they say are often lacking on the current board. The board is attempting to have Dyer ousted, accusing him of bullying and breaching confidentiality agreements, allegations that Dyer has denied. The case is before an administrative law judge.

Dyer's defeat in the primary means that the board will have at least one new member. The fate of the seats could greatly affect the future of school board policy. The school board's makeup is about to change as the school system grapples with such issues as redistricting, implementing common core and teacher evaluation standards, and applying for federal Race to the Top funding.

The other candidates are Jackie Scott, David Gertler and Ann de Lacy, the former president of the Howard County Education Association who finished second in the primary voting.

New Howard Superintendent Renee Foose said that she is optimistic about working with the future board, no matter what its makeup.

"I do believe the current board is committed to working to making the school system world-class," Foose said, "and I'm certainly optimistic that any board member coming on would be coming on for that same purpose."

The candidates have squared off in many forums throughout the year, and some have held their own events to reach out to voters. Their signs are prominent along Howard's major roads, and the candidates have continued to go door to door to hand out pamphlets and listen to what individual voters want in a school system that is already among the best in the state and nation.

Scott, who finished fourth in the primary, said that the one-on-one interactions and small-group formats she's been involved in "give me the opportunity to really get to know what's on folks' minds, and for them to see me in a greater light. I don't have to shrink all of my answers down to two-minute responses or sound bites.

"I think it's critically important for people to not only know what I think but also how I think — so that even if we disagree, they have a sense of confidence in how I make decisions and why I've arrived at the conclusions that I did," said Scott, an adjunct professor of health law and policy at the Georgetown University Law Center.

She said she has advocated ensuring that each student who enters the system has "an opportunity to engage in learning that meets them where they are; encourages and supports growth and excellence; and equips them with the skills necessary to compete in a global society."

Gertler, whose campaign has stressed the need to embrace more technology in the classroom and community service, has hosted events including a STEM Career Night, during which residents who work in science, technology, engineering and math-related fields spoke to parents and students about career options.

"We've also held math and science appreciation sessions to help students with homework and get them excited about learning math and science," said Gertler, an adjunct professor of mathematics at Towson University.

Ballinger, a staffer for Pennsylvania Republican Rep. Joe Pitts, says he has been letting voters know "I will be a board member that will want to listen."

"I've been highlighting what I stand for, including fiscal responsibility, making sure parents and teachers are involved in the decision-making process and that every child gets the best-quality education through the expansion of technology and district learning," he said.

Siddiqui, Giles and de Lacy did not respond to requests for comment.

Siddiqui has championed health and wellness, collaboration with county government, and expanding the internal auditor for school board cost savings.

Giles wants to ensure that students who graduate from the system are prepared for a more diverse and competitive workforce and that students who are already succeeding in the system continue to do so.

De Lacy has stressed an increase in transparency and public access to information and a decrease in the focus on standardized tests. She also advocates for pre-kindergarten at age 3 for all children.

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