Waters leaves school board

Columbia resident quits panel halfway through 6-year term

`Came out of the blue'

In letter to Robey, panelist says integrity was `compromised'

October 19, 2001|By Tanika White | Tanika White,SUN STAFF

Howard County Board of Education member Laura Waters resigned yesterday from her position on the five-member panel, with three years left to serve in her term.

In a personally delivered letter to County Executive James N. Robey, Waters said she wanted to leave the school board because "I no longer believe that I can represent my constituents fairly if my integrity and principles are compromised. I have not made this decision lightly, but have thought about it for the past five months."

Waters, 54, could not be reached for comment, but county and school officials said the news was surprising.

"It came out of the blue," said Robey, after Waters handed him the resignation letter Tuesday. It became effective yesterday.

Under state law, Robey must appoint someone to finish Waters' term. His selection will be subject to County Council approval.

Robey said he did not have any ideas about whom he might choose. "It's probably one of the most important selections I will make as county executive. I want to take my time," he said. But Robey added that he would likely have a name within 10 days to two weeks.

"I want someone who has a deep interest in the education of children and who will make the commitment to put the time and effort into it," he said.

Superintendent John R. O'Rourke said there are few people who are more concerned about the school system and the community than Waters. "I'm very grateful that she's been a board member for my first year," O'Rourke said.

Waters, of Columbia, was elected in 1998 to a six-year term on the school board, beating out engineer Arthur Neal Willoughby and transportation manager Glenn Amato. She ran on a platform of increased student discipline.

From the beginning, Waters' relationship with other board members - particularly from the previous board - was clearly strained. She complained in numerous interviews and in public settings that she felt her opinions were not valued and that she was often talked down to or ignored.

Her two-page letter to Robey hinted at that underlying discord.

"It is difficult to discuss vision without building collaborative relationships that value each person's skills, opinions and ideas," Waters wrote, "and as a board we have failed to do that."

School board Chairwoman Jane B. Schuchardt had not seen Waters' letter to Robey, but she received a short e-mail from Waters Wednesday that alerted Schuchardt she was leaving.

Schuchardt said she was only somewhat surprised by the news. She had heard rumblings from others close to Waters that she might resign, she said, but she quietly hoped Waters would not leave.

"I worked hard to get this board pulled together, and I thought we were doing fairly well," she said. "I know this is going to be looked on as a black mark against the board."

Schuchardt said tensions existed between Waters and other board members but that the tide had begun to turn after last year's school board race, when two new members were elected.

"I hope they [constituents] don't look at it that people on the board had anything to do with this - maybe they did, indirectly. I don't know. I have yet to see her letter," Schuchardt said. "There is nothing I can do about the personalities of people on the board."

School system critic Allen Dyer said more could have been done to achieve harmony on the board. It is clear, he said, that board members' treatment of Waters probably pushed her to give up.

"The first thing that concerns me is just the personal aspect of it," Dyer said. "This is a board member who, based upon the e-mails I've seen, was treated rather shabbily."

Dyer, who is suing the Board of Education and former board members, has obtained - for the lawsuit's purposes - copies of e-mail exchanged among board members.

Much of the e-mail reveals that Waters believed board members looked down on her and invalidated her opinions.

In November 1999, for example, Waters shot back at an e-mail from then board Chairwoman Sandra H. French, writing: "I told you not to send me messages that question my competence as a board member. I am a good board member, although I define my role in a different way than you do."

French could not be reached for comment yesterday.

Karen B. Campbell, who left the county after her term ended last year, wrote in a subsequent e-mail that Waters was not living up to expectations.

"You may feel free to define your role as a Board member any way you like, but it appears that you prefer not to even try to fit the expectations of the rest of the Board," Campbell wrote. "Walk to a different drummer if you choose, but the path is more difficult and most often doesn't get far. It IS possible to meet expectations in your own way - every one of us does that, none of us wants to tell you to walk only in our footsteps, just keep on the same path!"

Other messages indicate that members felt there was little trust between Waters and others on the board.

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