School board race has candidates talked out

Debates, forums keep Carroll hopefuls busy

September 24, 2000|By Jennifer McMenamin | Jennifer McMenamin,SUN STAFF

Vice President Al Gore and Texas Gov. George W. Bush will meet in two weeks in Boston for the first of three presidential debates.

By then, Carroll County's school board candidates will have met at least six times to spar over local issues. Even then, they'll be only half done.

A dozen forums, debates and cable television tapings are crammed into their schedule between Labor Day and the Nov. 7 general election - and there are rumors of more.

"My first reaction was that I balked. I thought, `Oh my God, how am I going to get to all of them?'" candidate Lisa Breslin said.

"But now I'm thankful that people are asking us to come, because if people go to listen to the candidates, they're going to know the difference between our leadership styles and the skills we'd bring to the board."

Political pundits often characterize televised debates as the turning points and defining moments of presidential campaigns. In perhaps the most frequently noted example, history buffs and political image-makers point to the day Richard M. Nixon possibly sweated away his chance for the presidency during a 1960 televised debate with John F. Kennedy.

No one knows when the turning point will occur in Carroll's school board election.

It could occur at the candidate forum with the PTOs of Robert Moton and Friendship Valley elementary schools.

Or the debate sponsored by the Carroll County Council of PTAs.

Or the forum with the Carroll County chapter of the NAACP.

"I'm crying uncle," quipped candidate Susan Holt. "It's enough."

If the outcome of an election were based on the sheer number of debates and forums, Carroll County residents would be much more likely to have well-tested school board members than a well-tested president. While the men seeking to lead the United States have three chances to debate each other, the four men and women vying for two empty seats on a board that oversees a 28,000-student school system have four times that number.

With the list of forums growing on almost a daily basis, the packed calendar has some candidates grumbling - off the record, of course - and others joking about a schedule more grueling than that of Gore and Bush.

"I sometimes think we go through some tougher stuff," candidate Thomas G. Hiltz said of the comparison to the presidential campaigns. "They've got a big staff and $50 million budgets and we have dedicated families and supporters helping out. People sometimes underestimate the amount of dedication and work it takes to run in a local election."

The crunch began with the Taneytown Republican Women's Club picnic Sept. 5. A forum with Carroll County Democratic Club soon followed. Then there was a taped forum for a cable television show, a taping for another cable show and a closed-to-the-public forum with members of the Carroll teachers union.

The schedule for next month is worse.

During one week, a forum or debate is scheduled on four of the five weekday nights. At one point, Mount Airy Middle School was trying to schedule a forum for the same night as the League of Women Voters' already-scheduled event. Candidates accused each other of soliciting forums at schools where their children are students, and of planting supporters to lob softball questions at one candidate or fire tough questions at an opponent.

The deluge of inquiries prompted Holt to complain recently that every school's PTA or PTO did not need to hold a forum. She later said that her gripe was based on the concern that so many forums would water down attendance at each.

Candidate Steven M. Nevin questioned whether so many forums would be "worth my time."

"I think it's important because it gives people the opportunity to show up," he said. "When I get discouraged is when I get to a forum and the candidates outnumber the audience."

Although school board races are typically not among the most headline-grabbing elections, retired political science professor Donald R. Jansiewicz said interest in them has gradually been building over the years.

Add to that a controversy, and a race is much more closely watched, he said.

"One issue you find in almost all communities is accountability - are schools performing?" said Jansiewicz, who taught at Carroll Community College. "But in Carroll County, because of the grand jury probe and the school construction issues and the issues surrounding the superintendent, now questions are being asked in the public's mind: `Let's be sure we don't have this happen again.' And that's certainly drawing more interest."

Superintendent William H. Hyde quit last month, leaving a school system under investigation by a grand jury and struggling to rebuild public trust. The grand jury investigation - begun in May 1999 to look into allegations of mismanagement in the school system - continues, and Hyde is expected to testify this month before the panel.

For the candidates, keener interest means more planned appearances and less time for individual campaigning, less sleep and more reshuffling of family commitments, more repetition of the same questions and fewer obvious distinctions among the candidates.

The irony is that candidate forums that were intended to draw out the differences could end up muddling the contrasts.

"I wish they'd start asking us really hard questions, questions that would help people differentiate between us," Hiltz said. "We've been doing this for almost a year now and sometimes I hear someone say something and I say, `Didn't I say that like a month ago?' or, `Wasn't that my answer last time?'"

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