Hopefuls for school panel square off

Dialogue allows similarities, differences to emerge

Audience questions 13

Education, terms of board members among debate topics

February 13, 2000|By Jamie Smith Hopkins | Jamie Smith Hopkins,SUN STAFF

Howard County school board candidates questioned one another for the first time yesterday in a marathon, four-hour forum.

The event, sponsored by the African Americans in Howard County political action group, highlighted similarities between many of the candidates on some issues, including teacher training and vouchers.

But the candidates differed widely on other issues, such as the best method for selecting a school board.

Thirteen of the 18 candidates attended the forum at the Department of Education building in Ellicott City. Not at the event were Marcelino Bedolla, Cheri J. Herschman, Michael F. Katz, Kathleen Sinkinson and Stephen Swanhart.

Sinkinson, who injured her right leg in a fall, sent a representative with campaign literature. Herschman decided several weeks ago to drop out of the race because she doesn't have time to campaign, but her name will remain on the ballot.

Two board seats are up for grabs. Four candidates will advance past the March 7 primary to the general election in November.

At the forum yesterday, each candidate was given the chance to query any competitor.

Virginia Charles, a candidate from North Laurel, said she was concerned about Allen Dyer's proposal to allow residents to vote on board policy through the Internet.

"He's disenfranchising a large number of parents" who don't have computers, she said.

Dyer, from Glenelg, responded: "Computer access after school hours is necessary for all students." He said all families who don't have it must be given that access.

Stephen C. Bounds, the sole incumbent, asked how many candidates had shown their "commitment to this job" by attending board meetings from start to finish -- not simply watching them on television.

The candidates who answered his question bristled at it.

"It's not an interactive meeting. It's not a welcome environment," said June D. Cofield of Columbia, who said she watches the meetings on television. "Do I participate? Absolutely."

Only Jerry D. Johnston of Ellicott City, who says he has attended nearly all the board meetings in the past three years, said he thinks it's better to be in the boardroom.

Johnston said it allows him to talk to people in the audience and staff members who present reports to the board.

Term years debated

Johnston asked the candidates how they thought the school board should be organized.

Most said they support four-year terms rather than the current six-year terms.

Most also said they thought the board should have seven or nine members rather than the current five.

But they were divided on whether board candidates should be elected by councilmanic districts, and whether some board members should be appointed by the county executive rather than being elected.

Both ideas have recently been proposed by Howard County legislators.

Diversity issue raised

Arthur Neal Willoughby was among those favoring election by councilmanic district, which he thinks would result in better representation.

The candidate, who lives in Jessup, reminded the candidates that no one on the current board lives east of Route 29.

Willoughby, an African-American, also said some board members should be appointed, which he sees as a way to encourage diversity.

"I believe what we are doing now is not working," he said.

Some candidates supported both or one of those changes. But Bounds, Dyer and Ellicott City resident Melody J. Higgins said they are against both proposals.

Audience members also questioned the candidates. One person wanted to know their positions on school vouchers.

Glenn Amato of Hanover and Kristine Lockwood of Columbia were the only supporters.

Both said they favor vouchers because poor students should have the ability to go elsewhere if they're not being helped in public school.

Don Dunn of Ellicott City said that vouchers are a "symptom" of improperly run schools and that he'd rather fix the problems.

Income mix debated

The African Americans in Howard County group also questioned the candidates, asking whether they would support a policy of mandatory training for teachers on how to accommodate diverse learning styles.

All the candidates said yes. But Lockwood, a Howard County schoolteacher, added that most colleges cover the subject and she wouldn't want the same training repeated.

Redistricting discussed

In another question, the group said that many low-income students and African-American students are concentrated in certain schools.

Candidates were asked whether they would respond by redistricting those students throughout the school system or by giving these schools more resources.

Nearly all the candidates were against redistricting.

"Let's look at each individual school -- see what each individual school needs," said Michele Williams of Columbia.

Cofield said redistricting by socioeconomic status would only "mask" the needs of individual students.

Patricia S. Gordon of Ellicott City believed parent involvement would drop if students were bused from their neighborhood schools.

But Daniel M. Dotson said special-education students included in regular education classes "model" the behavior and learning styles of the other children.

"With socioeconomic redistricting, we can get similar results," said the Columbia resident.

"Children from lower socioeconomic backgrounds can then blend in with children from higher economic backgrounds," he said.

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