Cook's tour Howard County: Departing school board leader helped system through tough times.

December 13, 1996

THE PAST SIX years were not financial windfalls for Howard County public schools, at least not compared to the previous six when money gushed into the system's coffers. But Susan Cook joined the school board in that tough fiscal period, ready to continue the system's high standards. With only a few exceptions -- outdated textbooks being one -- she has helped county schools survive the hard times in sound shape.

The school system continued its rapid growth during her term on the Board of Education, including two years as chairwoman. Enrollment rose 29 percent this decade, to more than 38,000 pupils. Yet county government slowed its increase in funding school budgets; in recent years, the county has provided only state-required minimum levels of money.

Ms. Cook and her board colleagues sought to spare classrooms from the cuts. Class size remained stable. Student achievement remained high. If standardized test scores are a good measure of performance, the county's public schools became best in the state during her term. Yesterday's state report card confirms that they remain No. 1.

Ms. Cook was always accessible. Embarrassed that board members sit on a dais above the audience at meetings, she and her colleagues started monthly "Coffee and Conversations" to put everyone on equal ground.

The Owen Brown resident was a forceful advocate for the system but with a graceful style that won over enemies and expanded her base of supporters. Many took notice of her keen ability to disarm opponents and to defuse touchy situations while getting her points across.

That talent was invaluable when she fought bills that would have given county government greater authority over school system operations and another measure that sought district election of board members.

Of course, not all sailing has been smooth, including the nasty Wilde Lake High School redistricting battle of 1993 and the board's misreading of circumstances that nearly cost the services of Superintendent Michael Hickey a few years ago.

But as Ms. Cook turns over the seat to Jane Schuchardt, who was elected to the board last month, she walks away with high marks.

Pub Date: 12/13/96

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