5 vying for seat on school board Candidates bring varied backgrounds to March 5 primary

February 25, 1996|By Howard Libit | Howard Libit,SUN STAFF

In their standard stump speeches, there is little to distinguish the five candidates in the primary election race for a seat on the Howard County school board.

Like national political candidates who dwell on tried-and-true but hollow themes, the school board contenders frequently return to broad statements about the need for academic achievement, student discipline, school system accountability and school board fiscal responsibility.

But there are great differences among the candidates -- in their backgrounds, personalities and knowledge of the system.

The contenders include three former teachers, an engineer and a community activist.

They are vying to finish as the top two vote-getters in the March 5 primary. The two who win in the primary will compete in the November general election for the single opening on the five-member board created by the pending departure of board Chairwoman Susan Cook.

In alphabetical order, the candidates are:

Virginia Charles

Ms. Charles is the stereotypical PTA activist.

She volunteers at least 30 hours a week at her daughter's school, Hammond Middle. She writes the school's newsletter, one of the most detailed in the county. And for years she has been active on the County PTA Council, most recently as the vice president representing the southeastern middle schools.

"I practically live here," said Ms. Charles, 49, of North Laurel, as she sat in Hammond Middle's PTA volunteer room and organized handouts for a teacher.

Ms. Charles, who has attended board meetings for years, long has been known for her sometimes brash views. She regularly testifies about such issues as budget cuts and school calendars.

But in this campaign, she has been almost silent -- because she has been out of Maryland for nearly every public meeting.

She has spent almost all this month in India with her husband on a trip scheduled long ago, and Ms. Charles may have to depend on her name recognition within PTA circles -- and a little last-minute campaigning -- to carry her through the primary.

With her PTA background -- and 13 years of teaching high school science in Baltimore and Baltimore County before quitting to raise her daughter -- Ms. Charles' agenda is focused on increasing parents' involvement in their children's lives.

"A lot of the problems that schools have could be solved if parents were more involved in their children's education," she said. "I am my child's primary educator. I do not give up that right or responsibility when I send my daughter to school in the morning. Every parent should believe that."

But there is little that can be required of parents, Ms. Charles concedes. And even if parents do visit classrooms more often, some teachers resist the intrusion.

Ms. Charles suggests the school board could encourage employees to use their vacations to spend more time in their children's schools and that the board could lobby companies to provide occasional extended lunch hours for the same purpose.

"We also need to find a way to get teachers to accept the fact that parents can be a major help to them," she said.

She points to recent successes at Hammond Middle School, where parents have taken an increasingly active role to help improve the school. Teachers regularly rely on parent volunteers for assistance, and parents and teachers have joined to set strong disciplinary standards throughout the school.

"The key is for parents and teachers to work together for the educational benefit of everyone involved," Ms. Charles said. "I think that's what we're doing here in Hammond, and I'd like to help ensure that happens at all schools."

Vincent Pugliese

Mr. Pugliese is blunt when he speaks and somewhat old-fashioned in his philosophy.

He concedes that he doesn't know the name of every program in the schools -- let alone their acronyms -- and he doesn't care.

"My basic problem is that I'm too honest," said Mr. Pugliese, 66, of Columbia. "I'm not clued in to all the jargons and letters. To me, I don't think it's that important.

"Have people really changed that much? Learning is learning," said the retired Montgomery County history teacher and football coach.

Mr. Pugliese, who still fills in for teachers in Montgomery schools -- said Howard's school board is out of touch with what is going on in the schools.

"When I sit in board meetings, it sounds like I'm in nirvana, that everything is going so smoothly. Then I've talked to a number of

teachers, and I sense a little bit of hesitancy about how good things are," Mr. Pugliese said. "Then, I go talk to the public and parents, and I hear a lot of concerns and complaints.

"Why is everyone so far apart? Where's the truth between these three groups?" said Mr. Pugliese, who has three sons, including one who graduated from Atholton High School.

In his scripted stump speech, Mr. Pugliese pegs the problems in Howard schools to several things, including substance abuse, multiculturalism and a decline in moral values and respect.

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