Meet 7 Gluttons for Punishment

COMMENT

April 23, 1995|By LIZ ATWOOD

Anne Arundel County's school board nominating convention is a little like an election in a communist country, only in reverse. In a communist country, everyone votes for a candidate who everyone knows will win. With the school board nominating convention, only a fraction of the county's residents vote and none of the candidates may end up being chosen for the school board.

Last year, for example, Tom Florestano, who had been appointed to complete the term of a board member who resigned, swore he wasn't interested in serving a five-year term. When his abbreviated term expired, he didn't go before the nominating convention to seek reappointment. But when Gov. William Donald Schaefer filled the vacancy, who should he name but Mr. Florestano?

After that, it's amazing that anyone bothered to apply to the nominating convention this year. Certainly the convention organizers and candidates couldn't find much encouragement from County Executive John G. Gary, who tried to seize the authority to appoint the board himself.

But despite the real possibility that they will be overlooked completely, seven candidates nevertheless are gamely playing along. They have prepared their resumes and speeches and are showing up at the forums and answering questions posed by delegates who also hope against hope that their advice will not be ignored.

Some have been there before. Francis A. "Paco" DeBartolomeo is running in his third convention. He carries with him a copy of a McGuffey reader and advocates a return to the basics.

Nancy Shrum, who was the convention's choice last year, is back. If she feels like the bride abandoned at the altar, she doesn't show it. She speaks confidently on topics ranging from class size to phonics.

Another candidate making a repeat appearance before the convention is incumbent Tom Twombly. The amazing thing about this is not that he is going before the convention, but that he is seeking reappointment. The others at least can plead ignorance, but he knows what it means to serve on the board, with its 10-hour meetings, the tedium of studying redistricting plans and school budgets, the harsh light of publicity when slips of the tongue can become the next morning's headlines.

A couple of the newcomers haven't a clue as to what they're trying to get into. Janet Bury and Pamela Napier confessed that they have never even attended a school board meeting. Still, they are a refreshing departure from the usual candidates.

Mrs. Napier dropped out of school when she got pregnant at 14. Later she went on to get a GED, and currently is working toward her associate's degree. She vows someday to get a bachelor's degree. You have to admire her stick-to-itiveness.

Ms. Bury has a Ph.D., but says that when she was in high school, her teachers had practically given up on her. She was saved by a change in schools and now teaches forensics at Morgan State University.

The other new candidates are David Ready, an urban planner from Annapolis, and Michael J. McNelly, a retired police lieutenant from Dunkirk. Both come across as plain spoken, sensible and quietly confident. Mr. McNelly, who has investigated rapes, murders and robberies, stresses the need for discipline in schools. Mr. Ready emphasizes the need for the school system to focus its attention on education and less on superfluous business such as overseeing capital projects.

Delegates at the convention are asking the candidates everything from their positions on the four-period day to year-round schools to whole-language reading. But the other night, one delegate asked a question that ought to be the equivalent of the 50-point essay on the final exam. The delegate asked the candidates whether they believed the school board should present a budget that reflects the needs of the students or one that falls within the confines of what the budget analysts say the county can afford.

That is not just a rhetorical question. The current school board recently approved a $432.9 million budget that was $15 million more than the county executive said he could provide. Reluctantly, the board decided to make the cuts rather than have the executive do it.

When the question was put to Mr. DeBartolomeo, Ms. Bury and Ms. Napier, they failed. They answered that the board should present a budget reflecting the needs of the students, then try to persuade the county officials to fund it. Mr. McNelly said much the same, but he at least gets credit for acknowledging that the budget is not a bottomless pit. Mr. Twombly, who has been one of the fiscal hawks on the current school board was surprisingly tame in replying that while children come first, the school staff must defend their budget requests. Give him a C.

I think only Mr. Ready and Mrs. Shrum deserve an A. Mr. Ready correctly stated that school spending is part of the local government budget and that school officials must learn to live within their means. Mrs. Shrum acknowledged that politics play a substantial part in the budget process and said that the school board needs to get away from giving money to groups that lobby hardest for pet projects.

Those probably weren't the answers the convention delegates wanted to hear.

But who's to say their opinion counts anyway?

Liz Atwood is The Baltimore Sun's editorial writer in Anne Arundel County.

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