Robey picks retiree for school board

Ex-businessman seen as diversifying all-woman panel

Jan. 7 vote on O'Donnell

Positive reactions by council members suggest easy approval

November 21, 2001|By Larry Carson | Larry Carson,SUN STAFF

In what several Howard County Council members called a move to add diversity to the all-female school board, County Executive James N. Robey chose James P. O'Donnell, a retired Ellicott City business executive, to fill a board vacancy.

The opening occurred when elected board member Laura Waters resigned last month halfway through her six-year term, claiming that panel members disdained her opinions.

O'Donnell, who turned 65 yesterday, has a background in finance and administration, and also served 10 years on an Illinois school board in a 5,000-student district during the 1980s. He has served as president of the Howard County Mental Health Authority board of directors.

"I'm a retired guy, and I've always had an interest in education," said O'Donnell, who has four grown children. "I saw this as an opportunity to help out the community."

The County Council must confirm the appointment in a vote scheduled for Jan. 7 - too late to suit school board Chairwoman Jane B. Schuchardt.

She worries, she said, that a new member would lack the time to prepare for making an informed vote on changing school district boundary lines - one of the most contentious issues the board faces.

Sandra H. French, another school board member, said, "I think the appointment is great. He will bring an additional dimension to the board that we need." If O'Donnell can't officially take his seat until January, "We'll do the best we can," she said.

O'Donnell said he will attend board meetings during the interim as an observer, and several council members said they want the public to have a chance to speak about the selection at a hearing Dec. 17.

"I think it's important for the public to come out and testify," said Ellicott City Republican Christopher J. Merdon.

The appointment seems likely to pass council muster easily, given members' comments yesterday.

Merdon and Council Chairman Guy J. Guzzone, a North Laurel-Savage Democrat, praised the move for the chance to add diversity to the board, especially because of O'Donnell's 30-year business career.

"A business approach will help on the school board," said east Columbia Democrat C. Vernon Gray.

"I like what I hear," Guzzone said.

Mary C. Lorsung, a west Columbia Democrat, said she, too, believes that it's "a really big plus to have somebody with a solid business background."

Colleagues on the mental health board gave O'Donnell high praise as a conscientious, determined advocate who is also a good listener.

"It's a joy working with Jim," said seven-year mental health board member Rudolph White, a psychologist. "He cares for people and is very interested in what he can do to meet their needs. He listens very well, and he follows through."

Barbara Peterson, another mental health board member, said, "O'Donnell is the best."

Robey, who chose from among roughly 50 names, said O'Donnell exhibited two important qualities. "It was clear to me that Jim had no preconceived notions or alliances," Robey said, and "as a retiree, Jim will be able to give the job a full-time commitment."

School board members earn $12,000 a year.

A 12-year resident of Ellicott City, O'Donnell was executive vice president of administration and member services for the National Association of Security Dealers from 1989 to 1996. He worked 17 years before that in management at the Midwest Stock Exchange.

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