Waters' school board victory surprises some French was expected to win, but race for other slot was wide open

November 05, 1998|By Erika D. Peterman | Erika D. Peterman,SUN STAFF

Few followers of the race for Howard County school board doubted that incumbent Sandra H. French would be elected to a second six-year term Tuesday. Voters and educators had repeatedly praised the former English teacher's record and ability to work well with others.

Less clear was who would win the second seat, left to a field of three relative unknowns.

Would it be Glenn Amato, who had sharply criticized school officials and threatened to sue them over a dispute involving his child's education? Or Arthur Neal Willoughby, an African-American engineer who some hoped would bring a different perspective to the all-white, five-member school board?

In the end, the victory went to former substitute teacher Laura Waters, 51, who made student discipline the centerpiece of her campaign. The election of the Columbia resident -- who had a brief teaching career in Prince George's County -- surprised some in the education community and disappointed others who had quietly pulled for Willoughby.

French and Waters were savoring their wins yesterday. Waters said she believes her call for a consistent discipline policy with specific consequences for misbehavior resonated with voters.

"I think that a lot of people really are concerned about discipline in school," Waters said. "I know a number of people who've started home-schooling because they don't like what's going on."

French said she was "thrilled" at the vote of confidence she received Tuesday.

"I will work with Ms. Waters, and we will do our best for citizens [and] for all kids," French said.

Because school board races are nonpartisan, people in the education community are usually discreet about lobbying for specific candidates. The Howard County Education Association, a teachers union, doesn't officially endorse candidates, but President Karen Dunlop wrote in a newsletter in October that members seemed most impressed with French after a recent forum.

Dunlop also wrote that "Willoughby demonstrates an appetite for learning the issues, whereas Glenn Amato and Laura Waters seemed not to do their homework. Amato and Waters are rooted in the place where they began -- negative personal experiences with the school system."

Dunlop conceded yesterday that she was disappointed at Willoughby's loss but said she was looking forward to working with Waters on the discipline issue.

"We think that Willoughby was, in fact, a strong candidate but had not gotten the exposure," she said.

Willoughby said he had hoped voters wanted more diversity on the school board.

"I thought the citizens of Howard County would have wanted that, but evidently they may not have," Willoughby said. "I am disappointed that the county did not choose me based on the technical wealth I would have brought to the school board. I think I'll run again. I think this has excited me."

Waters taught as a substitute in Howard County in the 1980s and early 1990s, including a three-year stint at Howard High School in Ellicott City. Last year, she taught eighth-graders in Prince George's County, but she said she had to resign after about four months because of asthma.

She said she would contact community groups that held forums for school board candidates to learn about people's concerns. Though she has some ideas she would like to propose, Waters said change is "slow and gradual." She will be sworn in next month .

"All of us brought a new perspective, but I have worked for the school system," she said. "I've seen what happens in the school.

One long-term challenge that will face French, Waters and the rest of the school board is the search for a new chief. Superintendent Michael E. Hickey retires in two years, and board Chairman Stephen Bounds said French's expertise would be valuable in looking for his replacement.

"I was very confident that Sandy would be re-elected," Bounds said yesterday. "I think she's done an excellent job. People clearly realize that, and that was borne out by the results."

Pub Date: 11/05/98

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