Activists seek school reforms

Community, failed board candidates join in frustration

HEAR provides a voice

July 21, 2000|By Tanika White | Tanika White,SUN STAFF

It started out as a disconnected group of former school board candidates, unable to make it past the March primary - angry, disgruntled and holding on to their platforms of reform.

Then, it became known that the Howard County school board's actions made parents and other community members angry, too.

So in the spring, the former candidates and disgruntled folks banded together to form Howard Education Activists for Reform, or HEAR. Twenty to 30 people have attended at least one of the fledgling organization's meetings, expressing frustration with members of the Board of Education or the public school system, in general.

Together, the group's members are striving to turn their frustration into reformation.

"I think we can become the umbrella organization for all the others who have particular issues with the school system," said member Steve Swanhart, a former candidate. "If a citizen feels frustrated, they can come to us."

HEAR started as the Committee to Reform the Board. Members met three times at former candidate Melody Higgins' home.

They discussed their belief that 65 percent of voters chose reform candidates in March's primary, but only status quo candidates made it to the final four. Also discussed was the firing in April of Glenwood Middle School teacher Kristine Lockwood. At the time, school board members said unofficially that her work was unsatisfactory. Members of the group also discussed the arrest of member Barry Tevelow on charge of trespassing on school grounds.

They talked about parents and schoolchildren who spoke on behalf of Lockwood being treated coolly. Many had stories to share about what they characterize as run-ins with stone-faced, tight-lipped school board members, and schools that don't work for children.

School board member Jane B. Schuchardt said she disagrees with the group's depiction of the board. She said each board member tries to be as responsive and fair as possible.

"We're only not `in-touch' with the people who talk to us who don't get what they want," Schuchardt said. "We do hear them. We just have to make decisions. And when we make decisions, we're making them for the whole county."

After meeting at Higgins' home, HEAR met publicly three times at libraries throughout the county, listening to people in sessions that often turned passionate.

New members continue to show up, bringing with them new stories about flawed or frustrating encounters with the five-member school board, Higgins said.

It is these stories that fuel the group to continue its efforts, although each member has a slightly different view of how things should be done.

The group had considered supporting a write-in candidate in the November election from among those who lost the primary, but it abandoned that idea. Now there is talk of endorsing one of the four candidates running for the two seats. But then the group would have to become a political action committee - a long and complicated process that would require too much fund raising.

Some members want to become a not-for-profit, with a board, bylaws and fund-raising capabilities. Others think too much structure will render the group as inefficient as they believe the school board is.

To member Allen Dyer - also a former school board candidate - an executive board means that decisions can be made in executive session, a practice all members oppose.

"I'd like for all of our actions, when we take actions, to be right out there in the open," Dyer said. "We need to have open meetings the way the [school] board should run their meetings, if we're supposed to be reformists and we're supposed to be showing the board how to do things."

At the group's latest meeting, Wednesday, each piece of correspondence the group plans to send out was read aloud to the group, then edited and approved by each person in attendance. One of the letters is to the state attorney general's office, protesting that the school board's biweekly 3 p.m. closed sessions are in violation of the "sunshine law," the state's open-meetings law.

The group is sending letters to former Superintendent Michael E. Hickey, new Superintendent John O'Rourke and state Del. Frank S. Turner, asking them for a dialogue at a public meeting. HEAR would like the meetings to be open to the public to encourage citizens to become more involved.

"Everybody has a story," Higgins said at Wednesday's meeting. "I keep running into people who have had a problem with this Board of Education."

The group plans to have a booth at the Howard County Fair, Aug. 5-12, where members hope more citizens will share stories and join in what they say are some of their goals: democracy, respect, a citizen-friendly board and a school system that works for all children.

Swanhart and Higgins said they want the school board members to realize their responsibility to taxpayers and be held more accountable.

"Right now, it seems to me that they may be more concerned about the average test score than the average student," Swanhart said.

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