Challenging year for Howard schools


January 02, 2000|By C. FRASER SMITH

HOWARD County's reputation for demanding a high caliber education system will be tested again this year -- and the county's Board of Education will face even greater responsibilities than usual.

After years of supremacy on the state's school performance tests, Howard slipped a bit this year. Panic is not the right prescription, but pressure will be exerted to regain Number One status.

The board will be occupied this winter with the usual round of budgeting and redistricting -- even as it begins to sort through applicants for the superintendent's job soon to be vacated by Michael S. Hickey, who has served in the post for 15 years.

A team of "educational consultants" -- sometimes known as head hunters -- has been at work on a list of finalists. In a remarkably democratic process, citizens have been invited to say what qualifications they'd like to see in the new superintendent.

Mr. Hickey has been valued as a man who communicated well, who made courageous, sometimes unpopular decisions, who honestly conceded mistakes and whose administration gave the county great status as a place for corporate executives in search of good schools for their employees.

Mr. Hickey instilled trust by granting license for experimentation. He was skillful at balancing freedom for individual staffers with his and the board's desire for control. These qualifications are a good starting point for considering the sort of man or woman the county should hire to replace him.

Voters ought to be going through a similar process as they screen candidates for the five-member board. They ought to have proper forums for making decisions -- to be provided by the PTAs, the media and others with the ability to project candidates and their qualifications on a screen the county can see.

Some enterprising soul might want to get candidate resumes on the Internet, for example, or establish chatrooms to discuss qualifications. In some recent elections for the board, this level of exchange has been absent.

18 candidates, 2 seats

Though demands on a school board member's time are intense, no fewer than 18 men and women are applying for the two seats that open at the end of this year.

They will be winnowed from 18 to four in March -- on the ballot with this year's presidential primary in Maryland. Two of the four will be elected in November.

Each candidate should be subjected to sharp scrutiny: Does he or she know the issues facing Howard schools? What ideas will the candidate advance for solving these problems? Have they attended board meetings regularly? Do they have children in the county's schools -- now or at some earlier time? What extra skills and expertise do they bring? Will they contribute to the board's need for diversity -- African American or Asian points of view?

Does the candidate have a countywide vision for education -- and will that overall approach allow for focus on the problems and concerns of individual schools and neighborhoods? Does the candidate have knowledge of the board's strategic plan?

If a candidate proclaims support for higher teacher pay, where would he or she get that money?

These questions and others should be asked and re-asked between now and the March primary so that candidates can demonstrate what they know -- and what they are willing to learn. The election can be an education for the candidates and for the citizenry.

A current board members, chairwoman Sandra H. French, says the board needs the widest possible breadth of experience and viewpoint.

"We have our strengths," she says, "but we could be stronger as a board."

If incumbent board member, Stephen C. Bounds, a lawyer, is not re-elected, will his strengths be replaced? Such things cannot be controlled, of course. But voters ought to think about the mix of talents a board needs. If one set of qualifications are not precisely duplicated, one hopes some other skill will replace them.

A perception that some areas of the county are not adequately represented has led some in Howard's General Assembly delegation to propose election of school board members by district.

Opponents fear that would "politicize" the board, necessarily robbing it of a county-wide, team approach to education.

Perception, though, can be reality and if the board cannot find ways to convince every neighborhood that it has representation such a bill might pass some day.

Increase compensation

Another bill, to increase compensation for the board's members, should be approved. Howard's board members now get $9,900 a year, well below the $15,000 paid in Montgomery and Prince George's counties. Do members in those jurisdictions work harder?

Money is not the reason most people run for this demanding job, to be sure, but in a world of two-worker families, money could make a difference.

Howard needs the best possible talent on its school board. Voters of discernment will help to recruit it.

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

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