Anticipating calmer race for school board

Campaign season lacks inquiries, lawsuits of last

Return to customary issues

Field has 7 candidates running for 3 open seats

Carroll County

July 07, 2002|By Jennifer McMenamin | Jennifer McMenamin,SUN STAFF

Last time around, the Carroll County school system was embroiled in multimillion-dollar lawsuits and a county grand jury investigation into bungled school construction projects and the Board of Education's management style.

Twenty-four candidates filed to run in 2000 for two open seats on the Carroll school board, culminating in a general election campaign peppered with promises to correct mistakes, return integrity to the system and fire the superintendent.

This year, with the cloud of scandal gone and a new, well-liked superintendent in place, the school board election of 2002 is likely to revolve around the more commonplace issues that school board contenders are accustomed to debating.

With the candidate field set after last week's filing deadline, curriculum and school funding most likely will take center stage again, replacing last election season's talk of lost credibility and mismanagement, as this year's seven contenders vie for three open seats on the five-member board.

"I don't think it's going to be as contentious as it has been in the past, since [Superintendent Charles I.] Ecker has come on board," said incumbent Gary W. Bauer, who is seeking his third term. "There is less of a perception that the school system needs to be fixed."

But the late entry of three fiscally conservative candidates - all longtime critics of the school system who have run unsuccessfully for the board in past elections - could spark heated debates regarding funding for the 28,000-student system, which runs on a $206.9 million operating budget and consumes about half the county's tax dollars each year.

Candidates William M. Bowen Jr., 72, a retired Baltimore social studies teacher and one-term Harford County Council member, and Jerry L. Brunst, 45, a self-employed landscaper who homeschools his children, ran as a team in 1996. They focused their campaign on funding, accusing the school board of wasting a generous budget on high administrative salaries and excessive spending.

The two entered this race June 27, although it remains unclear whether they plan to run as a team this year.

Candidate James E. Reter, 70, a certified public accountant who was comptroller of the school system from 1979 to 1993, has been a familiar figure over the years at school budget hearings, where he has criticized board members each budget season for wasting money and for failing to demand accountability from school administrators.

Reter, who ran for the board in 1998 and 2000, filed his most recent candidacy with the county elections board less than three hours before the 9 p.m. deadline July 1.

Bauer, fellow incumbent C. Scott Stone and candidate Laura K. Rhodes, a longtime PTA activist, also have leveled budget criticisms over the years. But they have aimed in the opposite direction, complaining that the district needs more money, and repeatedly have called on the county commissioners to fully fund the board's budget request.

"Funding will definitely be an issue," Rhodes said. "We, as a Board of Education, don't have control over it, but what we have to do ... is let the powers that be - who do control the budget - understand and trust that what the Board of Education says it needs is necessary. We need to build things back to when the board says, `This is what is necessary,' the commissioners trust that and together we work to find a source of funding for it."

Dealing with residential growth - how the school system prepares for and responds to development that brings about 500 new students to the county's public schools each year - and ways to increase academic rigor of the curriculum are also expected to be campaign issues.

The candidacies of Bowen and Brunst also raise the specter of their personal criticism of then-incumbents Ann M. Ballard and Joseph D. Mish Jr., which many local observers say made 1996 one of the county's ugliest school board election seasons in recent memory.

Candidate John F. Murray Jr., a software compliance officer with the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, said that he holds no ill will toward the incumbents and hopes the campaign does not involve to personal attacks. His candidacy, he added, should not be viewed as an indictment of the board's current members or the administration.

"The people on the current board and the people in our current educational system are doing the best they can do with the money and information they have," Murray said. "But if some people think it's time for change, I'm offering them a clear alternative."

The primary election is Sept. 10. The top six vote-getters will proceed to the Nov. 5 general election.

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