Fishing in a deep pool of civic talent


February 13, 2000|By C. FRASER SMITH

SURELY one finds a direct correlation between committed citizens and the caliber of a school system.

More than money, more than classroom innovations, more than school buildings -- even more than computers -- the eagerness of citizens to serve on their school board might be the place to assess a communitys commitment to the future.

Howard County proves the point.

With two vacancies on the county board of education, a near-legion of candidates -- 18 in all -- filed and now campaign for the honor. And surely it is regarded as an honor in a county where the quality of public education is no less important than the quality of the water.

With the school board, of course, a private citizen can be productively involved in maintaining it.

Howard recently slipped a bit from the top rung of performance in the informal competition among the states 24 systems. The slip was minimal and superiority could soon be restored. Certainly that is a goal of many who now compete for the school board seats.

As The Suns Jamie Smith Hopkins has reported so comprehensively, the contenders bring a wide array of concerns and aspirations to their quest. One of the seats at stake is held now by Stephen C. Bounds, whose service on the board over the last four years has been of high caliber.

With name recognition and incumbency in his favor, Mr. Bounds could well succeed himself -- meaning that the other 17 candidates are really running for one vacancy.

Mr. Bounds deserves re-election only if he can convince voters he does. In a field of 18, though, confusion can be sufficiently intense to give him a further advantage.

Nevertheless, the race is wide open and a good campaigner or two -- not necessarily including Mr. Bounds --could win with relatively few votes.

All the more reason for the voters to pay attention, decide what they want and identify favorites. Anyone who wishes to get a glance at who the contenders are -- ages, occupations, interests and issues -- could check out Jamie Hopkins story in the Jan. 7 Howard County edition of The Sun.

The candidates offer varied backgrounds, with impressive community involvement credentials and lists of priorities they would pursue if were elected: attention to the resource needs of particular schools; concerns about education of the handicapped; ideas for accommodating growth; improving teacher pay; sincere appreciation of parental involvement; the quality of instruction and early identification of children with psychological problems so they can be helped as soon as possible.

Groups throughout this county will be looking for ways to find the best prospects in this large, promising field. A few have fashioned questions they would ask if they had the chance. The exercise is a worthy and useful one -- good for the candidates to consider. But good also for voters who would like to make an informed choice and wonder how theyll make it through the dozen and a half candidates.

Here are a few of the questions suggested by one of these interested groups. They seem a good starting point for further thinking about issues that face the countys schools, its soon-to-be-hired new superintendent and the school board.

How would you value socio-economic/ethnic diversity, geography, over/underutilization of certain schools in a redistricting decision?

Do you feel that the existing process for redistricting provides adequately for community involvement?

Should the open enrollment policy be changed? If so, how would you alter it?

What is your definition of equity and what are the most important factors inproviding equity between schools?

What incentives could be offered to create greater willingness among teachers to serve in difficult schools?

How can the board ensure that administrator weaknesses are recognized and promptly addressed?

What assistance would you provide to improve staff at all levels? When and how would you offer it?

What are the current methods the board uses for communicating with the community? How would you improve on them?

How would you improve the relations between the county government and the board? What do you feel is the appropriate role of the County Council in education?

Do you have some suggested waysto improve parental and community involvement in all schools -- especially in the focus schools?

Surely, others will want to add their own questions.

How, for example, would you try to convince parents to send their kids back to the neighborhood schools they abandoned? If you had been in the same situation -- an under-performing school, questionable school leadership, loss of good teachers -- would you have done the same thing or hire a bus so your kids could get to a good school? What would you do to prevent such a situation?

The primary or winnowing election will be March 7. The 18 will be reduced to four. The finals will be on Nov. 7. Be prepared.

C. Fraser Smith writes editorials for The Sun from Howard County.

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