At least six candidates are expected to run for the two seats on the Howard County school board that will be contested in this fall's elections.
One of the incumbents in the two seats, Sandra H. French, plans to enter the race. Board member Linda L. Johnston announced this month that she will not seek re-election when her six-year term ends in December.
The contests carry added weight because the five members of this school board will, for the first time in more than a decade, select a new leader.
Superintendent Michael E. Hickey plans to retire in two years.
The deadline for candidates is July 6. As of Friday, four -- French; Alfreda Gill, a Clarksville private school teacher; Jerry D. Johnston, an Ellicott City accountant; and Laura Waters, a Columbia substitute teacher -- had registered.
Two others -- Vince Pugliese, a retired high school teacher, and Arthur Neal Willoughby, a Jessup mechanical engineer, have indicated they will run. Additional candidates are expected to emerge before the filing deadline.
The top four candidates in the nonpartisan primary election Sept. 15 will advance to the Nov. 3 general election.
The seats will go to the top two in that vote.
The four who survive the primary will face each other in October at a round-table discussion sponsored by the PTA Council of Howard County, said Susan Poole, PTA president.
The school board candidates, all longtime Howard County residents, represent diverse perspectives and, in preliminary discussions, focused on a wide range of issues.
'Strength of continuity'
French, a longtime school activist and teacher, is finishing her first six-year term on the school board.
"I do have the strength of continuity," she said. "I understand our weaknesses and strengths, and I can provide continuity as well as vision. I'm excited and eager to do that.
"I can see how things interlock -- reading, class size, discipline, the middle school [reform] initiative. All those things are intertwined. One will help the other."
In recent school board discussions, French stressed the need to salvage programs to aid struggling readers and disruptive students, issues she considers crucial.
French said that if she is re-elected, her experience on the board will serve her well during the search for a superintendent when Hickey retires at the close of the school year in 2000. Members of the board have begun setting up a timetable for the search, she said.
Concern about violence
Alfreda Gill, a 21-year resident of western Howard County, has taught preschool at Montessori schools in Columbia for nearly 15 years.
Her three children -- the youngest a 10th-grader at River Hill High School -- have attended county public schools for more than a decade.
Gill said she is concerned about what she considers youths' lack of respect for their elders and that as a school board member she would stress discipline, improved after-school activities and parental involvement.
"I'm really disturbed by the violence in schools. I want to do something about it," Gill said recently in the living room of her Clarksville home. "I want to provide for children who have problems in school."
Gill, an immigrant from Pakistan, said she wants to contribute to the society that has welcomed her family.
"This country has given us so much," she said. The school board seat "is my way of saying thank you. I'd like to give something back. I want to do something to help the younger generation go the right way."
'A big gap'
Jerry D. Johnston, an Ellicott City accountant, said he loves children -- he has eight -- and that large classes exacerbate problems such as discipline and reading difficulties.
Reducing the student-teacher ratio should be a top priority, he said. Johnston said he has often heard school officials express similar sentiments but there has been too little action, particularly in regard to this year's budget.
"Between word and deed there is a big gap," he said. "Class size -- they talk about that, but there was no money [in this year's budget] for class sizes. That's an issue for me."
One of his campaign slogans will be "Back to Basics," a call to stop creating programs and focus instead on excelling at core subjects, he said.
The current school board says, " 'There's a problem, so let's start a new program to solve it.' Maybe they ought to concentrate on basic teaching," Johnston said.
Johnston, who attended many school board meetings in the past school year and unsuccessfully sought a board position six years ago, plans to be more critical than current board members of proposals by Hickey and his staff.
"I don't think anybody really understands the numbers, but I do," said Johnston, pointing to his 30-year accounting career.
In his campaign, Johnston said, he will address the issue of disruptive students and will investigate the possibility of a school tax statewide.