Wishnick tops race for school board Schuchardt narrowly leads Charles for 2nd

absentee votes crucial

March 06, 1996|By Howard Libit | Howard Libit,SUN STAFF Sun staff writer Shanon D. Murray contributed to this article.

Francine Wishnick clinched last night one of the top two spots in the primary election for the Howard County school board, and Jane Schuchardt narrowly led Virginia Charles for the second position in a race that remains too close to call until absentee ballots are counted.

Dr. Schuchardt and Ms. Charles were separated by just 177 votes with all of the precincts reporting.

But with 925 absentee ballots mailed out by the Howard County Board of Elections, it may not be clear until March 15 which of those two candidates will end up vying against Ms. Wishnick for the single school board seat in the November general election.

It was certain last night, however, that Arthur Neal Willoughby and Vincent Pugliese were out of the running.

The eventual top two vote-getters will face off in the general election to replace school board Chairwoman Susan Cook, who decided not to run for re-election after serving one six-year term.

The winner will join a school board that is facing one of the most dire financial periods in the history of Howard schools. County revenues have not been growing fast enough to keep up with the school system's rapidly rising student enrollment, and the board's difficult choices about how to spend money are sure to continue.

"Whether it's Jane [Schuchardt] and I or Gin [Charles] and I, we will focus on the issues and run a much more specific campaign than the race up to the primary," said Ms. Wishnick, a community activist who has served on such groups as the Columbia Council. "As the budget process continues, I think it will raise important issues for us to discuss."

Meanwhile, Dr. Schuchardt and Ms. Charles will have to wait for the counting of the absentee ballots. Most will be counted tomorrow, and the rest will be tallied March 15.

Dr. Schuchardt, a retired Howard teacher, said: "There are no guarantees, but I think the absentee ballots will come in like the rest of the ballots" and keep her in second place. "I'm happy with my showing, and we'll have to wait and see," she said.

Said Ms. Charles: "I'll be looking forward to the counting of the absentee ballots. I hope it changes the results."

No matter how the election turns out, Ms. Charles said she had no regrets about being out of the country for nearly all of February, missing most of the campaign forums and debates.

"The trip to India was planned for a long time, and it was an experience of a lifetime," said Ms. Charles, a longtime Howard PTA activist and former teacher. She pledged to run again in two years if the absentee ballots don't vault her into second place.

Ms. Charles' trip abroad exemplified the low-key campaign that appeared to attract little interest among the voters.

Typical of the voters interviewed outside the polls yesterday was Tom O'Neill, 33, of Ellicott City. Mr. O'Neill said he voted for Vincent Pugliese, but not for any particular reason. "It was just kind of a guess," he said.

Throughout the low-budget campaign, the candidates rarely clashed over specific changes in the school system, spending most of their time talking about the importance of such broad issues as academic excellence, fiscal responsibility and discipline.

Mr. Pugliese and Mr. Willoughby were repeatedly criticized as having insufficient knowledge of the school system.

Last night, Mr. Pugliese said he was pleased with the campaign.

"I met a lot of people and learned a lot," he said. "I just regret the fact that I really thought I could have made a change in this county, but obviously the voters didn't agree."

Mr. Willoughby could not be reached for comment.

The final results from last night were:

Ms. Wishnick: 24.90 percent; 7,403 votes.

Dr. Schuchardt: 22.63 percent; 6,727 votes.

Ms. Charles: 22.03 percent; 6,550 votes.

Mr. Willoughby: 15.49 percent; 4,605 votes.

Mr. Pugliese: 14.96 percent; 4,447 votes.

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