A race to stand out from a crowd

Primary debate to be unwieldy with 18 vying for 2 school board slots

January 09, 2000|By Jamie Smith Hopkins | Jamie Smith Hopkins,STAFF WRITER

This is what it means to have 18 people running for Howard County's school board:

In a 1 1/2-hour forum, each candidate would have five minutes to speak, maximum. No time for multiple questions, rebuttals or in-depth responses -- a debate without debate.

"Logistically, it's going to be a nightmare," said Stephen C. Bounds, the sole incumbent running. "I'm not sure how candidate forums are going to work."

It's new ground for everyone. Board of Elections officials believe this is the largest group to run for the school board in Howard County. Seven people ran for the board in the last election.

Candidates are pondering how they will stand out in the crowd.

"It's going to be a challenge, that's for sure. It's probably, `Work hard, or not be seen,' " said Melody J. Higgins, 42, a candidate who lives in Ellicott City.

The board hopefuls have until the primary March 7 to connect with voters. The top four vote-getters will compete for two seats in the November general election.

The candidates' campaign strategies range from setting up Web pages to knocking on doors and speaking to business groups. Those who have long been active in the schools or the community say they hope that will help at the polls.

"I think the election is about name recognition between now and March 7," said Jerry D. Johnston, 55, who has run twice before and wants to improve communication throughout the school system.

As the incumbent, Bounds believes his name is recognized more than those of other candidates. But Higgins questions whether that will help this year, as parents and leaders look into perceived inequities in the schools.

"The present climate," she said, is one of "dissatisfaction with the board."

But political observer Donald F. Norris, a policy sciences professor at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County, said board races generally have such low profile that being an incumbent may mean nothing at the polls. And the Columbia resident sees no general unhappiness with the school system or the board.

But many candidates believe the unusually large field means people are dissatisfied.

"A lot of people are questioning the way we do things," said Kristine Lockwood, 30, a seventh-grade English teacher at Glenwood Middle School who wants to improve pupils' education by directing more resources to educators. "Certainly, some of the things we do are excellent -- and some of the things we do need improvement."

Bounds, who said he "started out as a disgruntled parent," expects board candidates to take issue with decisions made by those running the schools.

"I think the real strength of Howard County is there is not a satisfaction with where we are, ever," he said. "Because we can always do better."

Some political observers worry that the sizable field could daunt voters. Deciding whom to support "becomes more complicated," said Joe Staub, president of the Howard County Education Association, which represents teachers and other school employees.

Carol Arscott, an Ellicott City resident who co-owns an Annapolis polling and consulting firm, said the size of the field could result in decreased voter turnout.

"This `cast of thousands' just kind of makes people want to turn away and say, `Gosh, that's too much for me to handle,' " Arscott said. "You hate to say that having a lot of people interested in serving is bad for the process -- it just makes it difficult for each one of these candidates to distinguish themselves from the pack."

But the would-be board members think bigger is ultimately better for the voters and the schools.

"People can't say they didn't have a selection," said Michele Williams of Columbia, who wants to raise teachers' salaries. "Hopefully, it will [spur] an increased interest in the educational process."

The candidates also believe multiple ideas for helping the school system will come out of the campaigns.

"We need to hear what all the candidates have to say," said June D. Cofield, 42, who wants to make the board more accessible to the public. "Change is coming -- it's in the air."

According to the county Board of Elections, the other candidates are Marcelino Bedolla, Daniel M. Dotson and Cheri J. Herschman of Columbia; Patricia S. Gordon, Don Dunn, Michael F. Katz and Kathleen Sinkinson of Ellicott City; Allen Dyer of Glenelg; Glenn Amato of Hanover; Arthur Neal Willoughby of Jessup; Stephen Swanhart of Mount Airy; and Virginia Charles of North Laurel.

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