School board choices similar

17 candidates agree more often than not in 11 election forums

Primary election today

March 07, 2000|By Jamie Smith Hopkins | Jamie Smith Hopkins,SUN STAFF

They've argued, debated and criticized, but what stands out about the 17 Howard County school board candidates is how much they've agreed.

It's a surprising trend in the primary race, considering the diverse opinions held by the unprecedented number of candidates.

But some issues with the potential to be contentious are eliciting a chorus of echoes instead. Nearly all the candidates say the annual redistricting process needs adjustment. Most believe that "equity in education" means giving more resources to some students, if those students have greater needs. Most say they support mandatory training for teachers on how to cater to diverse learning styles.

So how are voters supposed to choose?

Today's primary will narrow the field to four -- although residents can vote for only two candidates.

Some school activists and observers say that voters will have a better idea of who deserves their support if they attended one of the 11 candidate forums. But even those who showed up for several forums are having trouble.

"I don't know how people are ever going to make up their mind," said Barbara Rudlin, who served on the board in the 1970s and 1980s. "If you go to the forums, it's easy to eliminate half a dozen. But I think there are at least half a dozen who are very good candidates. And that's where the problem comes in."

She noticed that the candidates often took similar positions at the forums -- so much so that some prefaced their remarks with "I agree."

"They obviously go into this thinking that they've got new and different ideas, so you wouldn't think they would end up sounding like everyone else," Rudlin said.

Consider, for instance, when candidates were asked during a forum last week how they would handle crowding in northeastern Howard County schools -- a controversial topic.

Two to one, the candidates opted for portable classrooms as the short-term solution.

"You'll hear a lot of `me toos' tonight on some of these issues," said candidate Jerry D. Johnston of Ellicott City, before adding his agreement.

Rudlin has two explanations: There are only so many answers to the same question -- and some less knowledgeable candidates just "parrot what others have said."

The candidates are far from agreeing on everything. Some have depicted themselves as agents for change while others see themselves as fine-tuners. On particular issues, such as open enrollment, the field is divided.

But, ultimately, it may be the little things that matter for some voters.

Some candidates use the wrong terms while discussing the school system, which helped Rudlin decide which candidates knew what they were talking about.

Barry Budish, president of the Waterloo Elementary School parent-teacher association, picked up on that, too.

"When you know a subject real well, you can hear when people are trying to fake it," he said.

After listening to the field at the forum his PTA co-sponsored last week, Budish concluded that a significant number of the candidates didn't understand the Adequate Public Facilities Ordinance, which limits development in areas where elementary schools are more than 20 percent over capacity.

Said Ilchester Elementary School parent Courtney Watson, whose parent-teacher association also held a debate: "A lot of people came up to me after the forum, and they're basing their decision on maybe one sentence they heard that differentiated one candidate from the others."

But some people following the race listened particularly carefully to what the candidates didn't say.

At the African Americans in Howard County forum, candidates were allowed to question one another. The political action group did that in part to see what the board hopefuls would ask. And it didn't escape the group's attention that none of the questions related to the concerns of African-American students or poor students.

Sherman Howell, African Americans in Howard County's vice president for research and agenda planning, said he thinks the way to get past the similarities is to learn how candidates plan to address problems.

But Susan Buswell, a school board member in the 1970s and 1980s, said she thinks that proved difficult with the large field. Most forums allowed candidates only one minute to answer questions.

"Despite the fact that there have been many forums, the real opportunity for a lengthy dialogue really doesn't exist," she said.

And many voters didn't hear any of the dialogue. A typical forum drew fewer than 50 people. That's why political observers say name recognition is particularly important.

Brad Coker, managing director of Mason-Dixon Polling and Research in Washington and a Columbia resident who is following the race, suspects that incumbent Stephen C. Bounds will do very well -- despite the recent disclosure that he is simultaneously seeking superintendent jobs out of state.

Coker said he thinks repeat candidates for the Howard County school board will have an edge. Four besides Bounds have run before.

"Those are the people voters have heard of before," he said.

Endorsements

Some local groups have endorsed Howard County school board candidates:

The Columbia Democratic Club endorsed Melody J. Higgins and Patricia S. Gordon.

The Ellicott City Democratic Club endorsed Melody J. Higgins and Patricia S. Gordon.

The African Americans in Howard County endorsed Michele Williams.

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