Four vie for two school board seats A thankless job, past members say

October 11, 1998|By Erika D. Peterman | Erika D. Peterman,SUN STAFF

Talk to former and current Howard County school board members about life on the dais, and two descriptions will inevitably creep into the conversation -- "thankless" and "time-consuming."

Listen to Dana Hanna, who served on the board from 1988 to 1994 and acted as chairman during his final two years. Like many people who run for office, Hanna thought he would start taking action the moment he was elected.

"The first misconception that people bring to the equation is the idea that they're going to do things," Hanna said. "School board members aren't doers, they're philosophers. They're policy wonks. You're merely someone who sets the course."

Hanna's thoughts could serve as a preview for the four candidates vying for two school board seats in the Nov. 3 election. Transportation manager Glenn Amato, incumbent Sandra French, former substitute teacher Laura Waters and engineer Arthur Neal Willoughby say they're up to the challenge of governing Howard County's crown jewel -- one of Maryland's top-ranked school districts.

The most familiar face is French, a 54-year-old Ellicott City resident who sailed into the general election with more than 30 percent of vote in last month's primary.

But most voters know little about the other three candidates.

There is Amato, a 42-year-old Elkridge-area resident who is threatening to sue the school system over a well-publicized dispute about the special education of his son. Waters, 51, who taught briefly in Prince George's County and worked as a substitute teacher in Howard County for years, believes unruly children are at the core of many of the district's ills. Willoughby, a 40-year-old Jessup resident who also teaches engineering at Morgan State University, says the board needs a "visionary" with a solid math and science background.

French is known for asking detailed questions of staff members during meetings. Waters' calling card is her jaunty cap. Willoughby's platform is vast, spanning everything from getting high-tech mapping computers into classrooms to cheerleading scholarships. Amato has said that being criticized by the superintendent "is probably the best endorsement I can get."

Combined, Amato, Waters and Willoughby have attended fewer than a dozen school board meetings since filing to run. All say they have stayed abreast of the issues by reading the agenda packets and/or watching broadcasts of the meetings. None expects a lack of time to be a problem if elected.

But the candidates would be well-served to consider the time commitment involved, if the advice from Hanna or board member Linda Johnston is any indication. Johnston, a federal employee in the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, didn't run for re-election because her working hours often prevented her from attending day meetings.

"There are endless meetings -- some of them productive, some xTC of them are unproductive," Johnston said. "It's very difficult if you have a full-time job to be a board member, and it should not be that way."

Johnston advises future board members to be "extremely flexible." Besides the meetings involved, Hanna noted that there are a number of school and community functions that parents expect school board members to attend.

"Howard County has an activist community far beyond the national norm. They want you to be there," he said. "It's extremely time-consuming. On peak months, you were hitting in 30-plus hours a week.

"I love science fiction. I don't think during my six years on the board [that] I got to read cover-to-cover one science fiction novel."

All this for $9,900 a year.

During the next few days, The Sun will run profiles of the candidates and their positions on issues. Today's profile is on Glenn Amato.

Pub Date: 10/11/98

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