School board candidates offer agendas Wishnick focuses on teachers, Schuchardt pushes better skills

Head-to-head in 3 debates

Both urge attention to discipline, are critical of initiatives

April 24, 1996|By Howard Libit | Howard Libit,SUN STAFF

The two remaining Howard County school board candidates this week began laying out the detailed agendas they will use to woo voters in the fall election, a marked change from the primary campaign they say was marred by ill-informed comments from their former rivals.

But a trio of debates yesterday and Monday showed that voters won't have an easy choice, with community activist Francine Wishnick and retired teacher Jane Schuchardt both offering centrist educational philosophies that tend to differ more in nuance than in substance.

The candidates -- who placed first and second respectively in last month's primary -- criticized a variety of Howard school initiatives, including the new technology magnet program, middle schools' emphasis on self-esteem and how special-education students are placed in regular classrooms. Both urged greater attention to discipline.

But Ms. Wishnick also promised that, if elected, she would work to make it easier to get rid of "incompetent or marginal" teachers and try to get the school system to set up "minimum grade competencies" to ensure that students have learned what they're supposed to in each grade.

Dr. Schuchardt, meanwhile, stressed the importance of schools paying more attention to the teaching of basic skills, a familiar theme from her primary campaign.

"It's good to hear them get so detailed and specific about what they would do," said Anne Cooke, head of the Howard County Republican Women's Club, echoing comments made at the other debates. "They both sounded like excellent, knowledgeable candidates."

Dr. Schuchardt and Ms. Wishnick are seeking the school board seat of Chairwoman Susan Cook, who decided not to seek a second term. The winner will serve a six-year term with a $9,000 annual salary and oversee a rapidly growing Howard school system in the midst of the most difficult financial period in county history.

This week's debates gave the two candidates an early opportunity to test their ideas in front of three very different audiences -- the Northfield Elementary School PTA, the Howard County Republican Women's Club and the Allview/Arrowhead Civic Association. They're sure to face off a dozen or more times before the November election, particularly during the fall campaign season.

During the three debates, the candidates often agreed on issues -- such as the importance of finding a way to ensure that teen-age mothers stay in school and the need for more cuts in the school system's central administration -- that were discussed during the primary.

The biggest difference between the candidates continued to be what each considers the necessary qualifications for a member of the school board.

Dr. Schuchardt -- who retired from the Howard school system last June after 25 years of teaching -- said it's essential to have a recent county educator on the board. But Ms. Wishnick, who has worked with several groups, including the Columbia Council and Oakland Mills Middle School PTA, said the next board member should be someone with broad community experience and a strong background in planning and budgets.

Perhaps the two biggest issues raised for the first time were brought up by Ms. Wishnick -- firing incompetent teachers and minimum grade competencies.

Ms. Wishnick blamed state tenure laws, school system policies and the teachers' union contract with making it almost impossible to remove incompetent or marginal teachers from the classroom.

"It often takes years to document and get something done. As a school board member, I would take up this issue," she said.

Dr. Schuchardt -- who was active in the union while she was teaching -- didn't disagree with Ms. Wishnick, but she said there have been cases in which incompetent teachers were fired.

The discussion over the firing of teachers also illustrated the depth of knowledge of both candidates. During their debate before the Republican women's group, they argued about the finer points of how the school system evaluates teachers and the precise language of the union contract -- a level of detail never reached during the five-candidate primary.

Pub Date: 4/24/96

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