A post-primary strategy evaluation

School board candidates examine what they did and how well it worked

March 12, 2000|By Jamie Smith Hopkins | Jamie Smith Hopkins,SUN STAFF

One Howard County school board hopeful spent days in the schools, serving lunches to students and chatting with teachers. Another candidate spent hours online, debating issues with parents. Another spent thousands and thousands of dollars.

Now that the primary race is over, the candidates are thinking about which of the smorgasbord of campaign tactics worked -- and which apparently didn't -- in the field of 17.

Campaign experience and money didn't seem to hurt.

Each of the four primary winners has run for school board before. Stephen C. Bounds, who placed first with 11 percent of the vote, is an incumbent. The other top vote-getters were school volunteer Virginia Charles, who ran in 1996; accountant Jerry D. Johnston, who ran twice before; and retired educator Patricia S. Gordon, who served on a school board in New York for six years.

Most spent less than $1,000

The majority of candidates spent less than $1,000 on the race -- significantly less, in some cases. But three of the four candidates who advanced past the primary each had more than $2,000 in their war chests.

The exception was Bounds, who ran a low-key, inexpensive campaign because he believed his name recognition and time on the job would be enough.

"I spent less than $75," Bounds said. "I bought some sticks to put my leftover signs on, and I bought a pack of purple paper."

Johnston spent more than the rest of the field combined: about $26,000 in ads, fliers, signs, postcards and an airplane-towed banner.

He placed third, with about 8.4 percent of the vote. He hasn't decided how much he will spend on the general election campaign -- although he doesn't plan to use a plane again.

"Obviously I'm pleased that I got through the primary," Johnston said. "But I don't know what I did right and what I did wrong at the moment."

According to the candidates' financial disclosure forms detailing fund raising through Feb. 20, the people with the most money besides Johnston were Charles, who raised $2,214, and Gordon, who raised $2,170.

Among Charles' contributors was Sandra H. French, the school board chairman, who gave $30. Gordon received $300 from the Columbia Democratic Club because she was one of two candidates it endorsed.

Charles and Gordon visited county schools during the race. Charles estimates that she has spent a day in 10 to 15 schools since mid-January.

"It may not be particularly helpful for getting votes, but I think it's important for board members," said Charles, who, like Johnston, regularly attends board meetings.

Some candidates spent very little money. Glenn Amato, a recruiter who placed fifth in the primary, estimates his expenses at $65. His campaign was inexpensive partly because he could re-use signs from his 1998 school board election bid.

Howard County teacher Kristine Lockwood, who came in seventh, spent less than $50. But she doesn't think the lesson of the race is to pump money into a campaign.

With fewer than an 800-vote difference between second place and seventh, Lockwood believes better planning could have done the trick.

She especially wishes she had enlisted volunteers to work the polls. Some candidates did that -- including Johnston, who had about 50 helpers. Lockwood didn't.

"That was a critical mistake," she said.

Gordon thinks good organization was the key for her. Part of her plan was attending informal, privately hosted "coffees" to talk with voters about her candidacy, which helped her pick up a lot of support -- volunteers as well as votes.

Columbia residents June D. Cofield and Michele Williams tried a different tack: campaigning together. They put up signs with both their names, worked different polls and held a joint party in the Jeffers Hill Neighborhood Center after the election.

A forum for changes

Candidate Allen Dyer, a computer consultant, spent a lot of time discussing issues on an e-mail message group for people interested in Howard County education. He thinks the primary campaign was more important than the election results because it gave people a forum to suggest changes.

He wanted to get residents thinking about ideas he considers important: four-year terms for board members instead of six-year terms; more school information on the Internet; and "choice voting," a process that allows voters to rank candidates in order of preference rather than selecting one or two.

He's hoping that the primary election results -- with about two-thirds of the votes going to the candidates who didn't advance -- will encourage people to support choice voting.

"As far as I'm concerned, I won," Dyer said. "I had an impact on the community, I've brought up issues and my children respect me more."

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