The four candidates running for Howard County school board faced yesterday some of their most knowledgeable and influential audiences to date - former teachers and administrators who not only knew the right questions to ask, but also the right answers.
At a forum held by the Retired Teachers Association, each candidate was asked more about his or her educational views and expertise, and less about political platforms, than in previous forums.
The candidates appeared later yesterday at a forum held by the local teachers union - the Howard County Education Association.
"Being educators, we have an understanding of what's important, what's crucial right now in the schools," said Mary Jane Mitchell, who retired as principal of Elkridge Elementary School five years ago. "And we can talk to relatives, friends and others who might not know."
Mitchell was one of more than 60 people at the Retired Teachers Association forum at St. James United Methodist Church in West Friendship. Moderator of the forum was former Howard County Executive Charles I. Ecker, who joked at one point that he was taking notes to carry back to the Carroll County school system. Ecker was named in August as interim superintendent of Carroll schools.
Audience members asked challenging questions about such topics as special education, school counselors, parent involvement in schools and how to combat the teacher shortage.
The candidates - current board member Stephen C. Bounds, Virginia Charles, Patricia S. Gordon and Jerry D. Johnston - were in agreement on many subjects and seemed to keep the audience nodding in agreement as well.
For example, the candidates agreed that the system needs to refocus its guidance counseling program and add more guidance counselors to elementary schools that share them.
Many guidance counselors are too bogged down with monitoring students' academic progress, administering tests and other paperwork to keep up with the growing number of emotional and social problems the children bring to school, the candidates said.
"Our elementary school guidance counseling ratio is just about the worst in the state," Bounds said. "And what we really need is some clerical help ... so guidance counselors can do what they're trained to do."
The candidates also agreed that the school system should pay teachers more and create additional high school programs and college-level partnerships to encourage more people to choose teaching careers.
Johnston said an increase in pay won't be enough to attract more teachers.
"We need to retain them," he said. "To retain them, it's not only a compensation issue, it's a support issue."
And the candidates all said they thought the school board could play a role in increasing parents' involvement in the schools.
"We need to encourage a parent outreach program," Gordon said. "A lot of parents feel uncomfortable. They feel outnumbered by the teachers [and] that the teachers have more information and aren't listening to them. All parents are interested in their children. We just have to show them that we too are human, and we have their children's best interest in mind."
The only area of some disagreement involved the recruitment of lay professionals to teach specialized courses such as math, science and computer. Some candidates thought the system could do more to attract engineers and mathematicians to the classroom, while others said all bright people don't necessarily make good teachers.
"We have to be very careful when we start talking about putting noncertificated people in the classroom," Charles said. "Our kids need teachers, not just disseminators of information."
The audience appeared pleased with the candidates.
"I have to say I was impressed by all of them," Mitchell, the retired principal, said. "I thought they were very well-informed and had a lot of different perspectives and good points of view."