Amid all the talk of bottom lines, tough economic times and hard choices for educators, the most familiar figure among the seven school board candidates delivered the most ominous warning.
Jane L. Andrew, who served seven years on the board before leaving in 1989, opened her comeback bid Thursday night with a desperate plea for county schools at a crossroads.
"They're hanging by their fingertips," Andrew said. "We've got todecide whether we step on their toes and watch them fall, or give them some support."
Speaking to nominating delegates who will send names of a nominee and runner-up to the governor, Andrew said the board must resist any spending cutbacks and garner more public support for an infusion of new money for teacher salaries, programs and renovations.
Without increased spending, she said, "We're going to see a lot more lost than you could ever imagine. We shouldn't go into next year with a cent less. We need more. The question is, how much more."
Andrew, now a part-time legal assistant, and the six other candidates for the board seat being vacated by Patricia Huecker delivered their pitches publicly for the first time Thursday night at Annapolis High School. The hopefuls then answered questions from the board nominating convention delegates, who represent some 70 civic, community and education groups.
Delegates will question candidates again Wednesday and April 16.
The names of a nominee and runner-up must be sent to Gov. William Donald Schaefer within five days of the May 1 vote.
Predictably, talk of budget austerity dominated much of the two-hour meeting Thursday night.
Lean times, the candidates agreed, will demand closer budget scrutiny as well as more aggressive efforts to win public support for education spending and ensure quality doesn't become a casualty of the budget cross fire.
Thomas F. Angelis, a restaurant supply salesman who has worked as a U.S. Senate assistant and a Washington policeman, suggested budget woes and sparring between lawmakers, board members and school administrators could be avoided by turning to the private sector.
Pointing to a highly successful program in which a grocery chain provided computers to schools in return for cash register receipts, Angelis said:
"The business community is waiting to be asked to be involved in our school system. I think the money is there, and we have to go out and get it."
Angelis also suggested giving principals more control over how money for their schools is spent to shift the decision from the "central office to the firing lines."
Maureen Carr York, who has worked as an attorney and nurse, suggested the school system and the board must do a good deal more to educate the public about school spending, particularly as money grows tighter.
Supporting a bewildering array of programs for everything from pregnant teens and latchkey children to drug prevention and computer literacy will prove even more costly, and necessary, in coming years, York said.
"We're asking our schools to do a great deal, a lot more today than ever before," she said.
"I think we have done a very poor job explaining to our taxpayers why thebudget keeps growing and growing."
Emphasis on a renewed commitment to basics also marked candidates' comments and responses to questions. All seven contenders warned against emphasizing non-traditional programs and classes such as "family living," drug education and sex education at the expense of the staples of reading, writing and arithmetic.
Ronald L. Ruffo, a retired high school principal who now serves as a safety officer for a contracting company, told delegates: "We hear an awful lot of criticism for things happening in our schools. Well, we need to give teachers more time to teach."
Retired elementary school principal Thomas Maxwell agreed. "I believe the curriculum has become so saturated with items that have nothing to do with test items," he said, answering a question on improving students' performance on standardized tests.
"We're doing sex, drugs, and a lot of time is wasted in the schoolhouse, folks."
Like other candidates, he suggested schools must work to encourage parents to take on more prevention measures, like simple, proven and often-overlooked stepssuch as reading to children.
Maxwell also asserted that too much time, effort and money is spent on putting out fires in high school. But much drug abuse, poor attendance and performance, teen pregnancy and other ills could be corrected in elementary school when experts begin recognizing tell-tale signs of coming troubles, he said.
Candidates also sounded another familiar theme: ensuring equity among schools and students. Too often, they said, the quality of students' education is decided by the school district where they live or by convenient labels such as "gifted-and-talented" or "learning disabled."