Twombly trying to blend school board into a team

January 10, 1994|By Carol L. Bowers and Andrea F. Siegel | Carol L. Bowers and Andrea F. Siegel,Staff Writers

The abrupt resignation Friday of Jo Ann Tollenger from the Anne Arundel County school board poses the latest challenge for its president, Thomas Twombly, who has been trying for months to unite a group with strong personalities that the public sees as fractious and unresponsive.

Mr. Twombly, 36, was elected the board's leader in July, just as relations with employees soured over wages and attempts to identify teachers who had been sexually abusing students, and he quickly found himself thrust into the spotlight.

Visibly uncomfortable in front of television cameras and reporters, he had the misfortune to be the one to deliver bad news to the public -- announcing investigations of the school system and then the resignation of Superintendent C. Berry Carter II.

"That was a difficult moment for me," Mr. Twombly said. "I felt closer to Berry Carter than anyone else in the school system."

After four years as a school board member, Mr. Twombly finds himself trying to lead a system without a captain.

"The most important decision this board must make in the next six months -- the most critical decision we'll ever make -- is the selection of a new superintendent," he said. "We must bring in somebody we can work with, who understands the strengths and weaknesses in the system and has good public relations skills."

Part of the board's image problem resulted from its conflicts with Mr. Carter, its reputation for lengthy meetings and plodding decision-making, some of it done behind closed doors. Board members, restricted by privacy laws, also were criticized last year for assuming a bunker mentality when they discovered that some teachers in the system had been sexually abusing students.

"There has been a problem of trust," Mr. Twombly said. "It was a problem even before the crisis. We have not communicated well with the public. Improved communication must be a priority."

It's not the first time Mr. Twombly has faced such challenges.

When he became president of the Elizabeth's Landing Civic Association, the group was facing financial difficulties.

Praise for past work

Don Dailey, the owner of Minuteman Press in Glen Burnie whom Mr. Twombly replaced as president of the organization, praised the board president's performance as the leader of the community group in the 1980s.

"It really wasn't until he came along that it really got going and it got set on solid financial ground," Mr. Dailey said. "He's the one who really got the whole thing started."

Mr. Twombly got the association's board to work together and get things "going in the right direction," after the developer of the community turned the association over to the homeowners in 1984, said Mr. Dailey.

He said Mr. Twombly was instrumental and supportive in getting erosion controls that affected about 100 waterfront homes in the community of 686 homes.

And he said he's not surprised Mr. Twombly has been able to make progress in uniting the strong personalities of school board members.

"He does his homework. He will listen to people -- opposing views, too. He communicates, too," Mr. Dailey said.

Growth as leader

Mr. Twombly has an associate of arts degree from Anne Arundel Community College. He attended the University of Maryland through his senior year, but did not graduate. He served in the Army from 1975 through 1978 and went to work as a telecommunications analyst at the National Security Agency.

There was a time before Mr. Twombly was board president when he "made snap decisions," said state Delegate Joan Cadden.

"He thinks things through now," added the District 31 Democrat.

A former school board member herself, Ms. Cadden said she empathizes with Mr. Twombly in dealing with the emotional issues he faces.

"In the face of some of the things that have been going on, I think he's been handling it [the leadership of the board] pretty well," she said.

"He wants to correct the things that have been done wrong. He wants to lead the school board and the schools into the future," she said, pointing to his consideration of year-round schools and countywide redistricting.

In his own community near Northeast High, Mr. Twombly has earned a reputation as "one of those people who always #F volunteer to lead," said Chris Kirby, father of a student at the high school.

"The board, including Tom, has made some boo-boos," said Mr. Kirby. "But Tom is a lot like I am. He tries to do the right thing. But when you make decisions, not everyone is going to agree with you."

Mr. Twombly isn't afraid to admit when he's made a mistake, either, said Mr. Kirby.

He publicly apologized to Carolyn Roeding, president of the County Council of PTAs, after he was chastised for saying she was criticizing the school board only because she is running for the House of Delegates from District 31.

And Mrs. Roeding said that, despite her concerns, the board has shown some progress under Mr. Twombly's leadership.

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