Could turmoil hurt superintendent search?


November 14, 1999|By C. Fraser Smith

As one of Howard County's highest-ranking Republicans, state Sen. Marty Madden feels compelled to be involved in the local issue that matters most to his constituents -- public education.

He has virtually no direct role in the struggles to guarantee equity and fairness in county schools -- but he knows that won't matter to his constituents.

His approach is both local and global. He urges his colleagues, Republican and Democrat, to honor the county's tradition of nonpartisanship in matters of education. He worries that this underpinning of strength is being undermined.

"We're at a crucial juncture," he said in an interview last week. The widely respected school superintendent, Michael Hickey, is retiring. A new leader must be chosen just at the time when issues of racial and economic balance and other potentially divisive matters are being considered by the County Council and a 23-member task force appointed by County Executive James Robey.

Also swirling is legislation that would allow school board members to be elected by district instead of countywide.

Who's in charge ?

"If you're a top-notch candidate," Senator Madden said, "you might have to ask yourself , `Who's in charge?' My concern is that all this turmoil could impede the effort to find the best candidate."

His short-term answer? Let the various parties complete their inquiries as quickly as possible so that the new leader will not find confusion when he makes his survey of the Howard system.

The senator worries that his political opponents have undertaken their inquiry because they feel Democrats are bulletproof on public education. If the public believes Democrats are the party of education, in other words, they can undertake disruptive studies of the system without worrying much about the potential for damage.

The Democrats, led by council president C. Vernon Gray, believe they have every right to examine the fairness of the school bureaucracy in equipping and staffing schools -- and that Republicans have never been reluctant to make Page=006 Loose,0005.09their own self-serving political statements.

Some potential common ground, fortunately, does exist. Mr. Madden believes there is some legitimacy to the view that the school department has not been as responsive to parental concerns as it should have been, inviting the current inquiries.

If these matters are carefully and thoughtfully addressed, the senator says, the county can look back on this exercise of self-examination with satisfaction and the knowledge that no harm was done.

Forgoing `Dawson's Creek'

In the meantime, Mr. Madden pursues his approach to educational excellence at the household level. Students in his senatorial district are working on the 1999 version of his no-television challenge. Kids who forgo "Dawson's Creek" and other TV fare will be feted at a banquet and each successful student will get an inscribed senatorial certificate.

The senator is so certain that TV-watching impairs organic development of the brain he's considering regulation of how much television can be seen by kids in state-regulated day-care centers.

Of the 200 students who accept his challenge each year, he said, some decide to stay away from the tube much longer. These students, he said, will reap benefits in more critical thinking, intellectual curiosity and discipline. Mr. Madden says he wants his challenge to become a "point of discussion."

He says some of his Senate colleagues, including some Democrats, are putting together their own versions of TV cold turkey. Good ideas can sometimes cause an outbreak of bipartisanship at the highest levels.

C. Fraser Smith is The Sun's editorial writer in Howard County.

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