School board begins `new day'

Ex-police detective voted president

superintendent eyes construction costs

Anne Arundel

July 11, 2002|By Stephen Kiehl | Stephen Kiehl,SUN STAFF

In a surprise move, the county school board named retired homicide detective Mike McNelly president yesterday and began what board members called a "new day" in Anne Arundel County education.

The board welcomed its new superintendent, Eric J. Smith, and quickly made changes in both the substance and tone of its work. The meeting ended two hours early, and brevity and fiscal accountability were the order of the day.

"We are entering into a new phase for Anne Arundel County schools," said McNelly, 56, a Dunkirk resident and seven-year board member. "We have four new board members, a new superintendent and a renewed dedication to make Anne Arundel schools not only the best ... in the state, but hopefully in the nation."

A Glen Burnie High School graduate and Navy veteran, McNelly retired from the county Police Department in 1995. He now is executive director of the Coalition for Fair Contracting Inc., in Camp Spring. The nonprofit group monitors Washington-area construction sites for labor law violations.

McNelly replaces Carlesa Finney, who has served three years as president and wanted to hold onto the job until next summer, when her term on the board expires. Instead, she was named vice president yesterday.

Finney said in an interview that when it became clear McNelly had the support of fellow members, she was happy to be a "team player" and step aside.

"This is a new day," Finney said during the meeting, "and we have a strong foundation to work on behalf of our children." She then turned to the new superintendent and said, "We believe we are giving you a system that is ready for you to take us - zoom us - into the 21st century."

The new board members are Edward Carey, 40, of Brooklyn Park; Eugene Peterson, 55, of Laurel; Konrad M. Wayson, 41, of Harwood; and student member Ashley Nathanson, 17, a senior at Arundel High School.

Yesterday was also Smith's first board meeting, and he already is making his presence felt.

Smith has told his staff that their presentations to the board will be limited to eight minutes; not long ago, presentations were sometimes elaborate affairs that lasted up to an hour. He has also said he wants memos limited to one page.

"Eight minutes is a long presentation," Smith said after yesterday's meeting. "It's not only the importance of the board members' time, but the staff's time and the public's time. It's a matter of respect."

Smith also is moving quickly to reduce the costs of school construction.

Eyebrows were raised among county officials this spring when the cost of each new elementary school approached $20 million. When update reports on two of those schools came before the board yesterday, there was plenty of talk about "cost-saving" from staff and architects that hadn't been heard before - at least not in public.

In the discussion on Marley Elementary -budgeted at $19.1 million - the architect said he had narrowed one hallway, reduced the size of the gym, made the building 16 inches shorter and cut a two-story foyer down to one story to save money.

The architect, David Recchia, of Rubeling & Associates in Towson, said he wasn't yet sure how much money the changes would save, but added, "It [the cost] has to come down."

The plans for Seven Oaks Elementary - budgeted at $19.5 million - are undergoing similar changes. This comes as County Executive Janet S. Owens' blue-ribbon commission on school construction is wrapping up several months of work. The panel is expected to recommend specific ways to cut the costs of new schools.

Smith appeared to be anticipating that by making changes of his own.

"We've been leaning on the design issue pretty hard this past week," he said.

The board also was supposed to hear an update on plans for the $41 million Marley Middle School yesterday, but Smith pulled it from the agenda so that he and his staff could have more time to assess ways to cut costs.

The new superintendent also is moving quickly to study the county's Gifted and Talented Program. An audit of the program that has been two years in the works was put on his desk yesterday, and he said he hopes to bring it before the board next month.

The much-awaited audit has been delayed for months, and yesterday a dozen parents of gifted students urged Smith and the school board to release the audit to the public and improve gifted programs, which one parent called "nonexistent" in some schools.

"When it comes to gifted education, our school system dramatically lags behind other Maryland counties," said Lyn Tucker, head of the Gifted and Talented Association of Anne Arundel County. "What gives with Anne Arundel County? Our patience is wearing thin."

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