Squaring off in their final debate before Tuesday's primary, the five candidates for Howard County school board struggled last night to distinguish themselves and their positions as they talked about a gamut of issues from education funding to state exams.
While the candidates tended to break little new ground in the two-hour session, they occasionally revealed previously unheard positions on specific matters -- particularly on the state's requirements for education funding.
The five candidates are seeking to replace school board Chairwoman Susan Cook, who has decided not to seek re-election. The top two vote-getters from Tuesday's primary will face each other in the November general election.
Perhaps the most notable revelation from last night's debate was candidate Francine Wishnick's support for an effort to weaken the state's "maintenance of effort" requirements. The law requires counties to increase their education funding enough so that they spend as much per pupil as they did the previous year -- or lose some state aid.
A coalition of Maryland county officials -- including those in Howard -- are seeking to reduce the burden on how much additional funding counties must provide for new students, from 100 percent of the previous year's per-pupil cost to 60 percent.
Some school boards in Maryland have supported the proposal, but the Howard board has opposed it because members say a 60 percent standard would not be sufficient to cover costs.
"I believe that the county has insufficient funding at this time to totally fund maintenance of effort," Ms. Wishnick said, noting that County Executive Charles I. Ecker already has warned school officials that the county might not be able to meet the current requirements. "The position I take is that the maintenance of effort requirement unfortunately needs to be changed."
Three of the other school board candidates -- Virginia Charles, Jane Schuchardt and Arthur Neal Willoughby -- said they opposed changing the law because the school system needs the funding.
"I am totally against what the state is doing here," Mr. Willoughby said.
Ms. Charles agreed, saying, "I am violently opposed to lowering it to 60 percent."
Dr. Schuchardt suggested that the county will have to think of new ways to come up with the necessary money for education.
The fifth candidate, Vincent Pugliese, did not take a position because he said he was not familiar with what "maintenance of effort" meant.
Another area where the board candidates differed was on merit raises for teachers.
Mr. Willoughby favored merit raises, saying that they will provide an incentive for teachers to "go the extra mile."
But the other four candidates objected to merit raises. They said pTC they agreed with the concept of rewarding excellence, but that merit raises are unworkable because there is too much room for bias in who does the evaluations and makes the decisions.
The school board candidates' debate -- which was co-sponsored by the Howard County League of Women Voters and the Howard County PTA Council -- will be broadcast on Howard County Comcast Public Access Channel 8 Sunday at 1 p.m. and 8 p.m.