Students question board hopefuls

Century High School organized the debate, prepared relevant queries

October 31, 2002|By Jennifer McMenamin | Jennifer McMenamin,SUN STAFF

In their last debate before Tuesday's election, Carroll County school board candidates faced off before a different kind of questioner last night - high school students from the system for which the board sets policy.

Students from Century High School in Eldersburg decided and managed about every detail of the event, from selecting refreshments served by the hospitality committee to winnowing a list of 100 proposed questions to four they asked each candidate.

Student organizers decided to publicize the event as a debate, although they acknowledged that its format was more forum-esque. "They're not responding to each other and there's no rebuttal, which makes it more of a forum," said master of ceremonies Chris Carmody, 15, a sophomore. "But `debate' sounded cooler."

The six candidates running for three open seats on the Carroll Board of Education have fielded questions from several organizations, including the League of Women Voters, the Carroll County Council of PTAs, the Carroll County Democratic Club and the local chapter of the NAACP.

But last night was the first time the candidates - incumbents Gary W. Bauer and C. Scott Stone and challengers John F. Murray Jr., James E. Reter and Laura K. Rhodes - were questioned directly by the students who walk the halls and whose lives are affected on a daily basis by decisions of the board. One contender, William M. Bowen Jr., did not attend.

Students wanted to know whether the candidates have taught or served as a school administrator and how their past experiences qualify them to work in the school community. They asked what the candidates might do about residential growth that has squeezed school resources and crowded classrooms. They asked whether the candidates would support a seemingly unpopular proposal to close the nearby career and technology center at South Carroll High and require students to travel "all the way to Westminster" to an expanded career and technology center.

Asked what she might do to resolve a work-to-rule job action in which teachers at a dozen county schools are boycotting extracurricular activities for which they are not paid, Rhodes said, "To me, work to rule is not the problem. The problem - and it's something I hope we never get to again - is that we have a staff that even feels it has to consider work to rule.

"These are not new concerns," she said of teachers' frustrations over class sizes, input in policy decisions and in-school training, "but I guess [teachers] feel they've not been addressed."

The five candidates agreed that better communication is the solution to ending the job protest and to preventing something similar in the future - a recommendation also offered by a task force that submitted a report to the superintendent yesterday on ways to improve working conditions for teachers.

All said they support renovating career and technology centers in Westminster and South Carroll rather than closing the facility at South Carroll High and spending $26.9 million to expand the Westminster center over the next five years.

Murray, who graduated from South Carroll in 1974 after a stint in what was then considered vocational-technical programs, also suggested asking corporations and industry leaders for money and assistance to renovate centers.

The election has provided an opportunity for students in the academies to get experience in their prospective career fields, but also to gain a small foothold of influence in an electoral process that rarely makes room for those younger than age 18.

"This is the best way to get involved," said Tommy Farver, 15, a junior and one of the students selected to question the candidates. "We're not old enough to vote, so this is the next-best thing. We can ask questions about [candidates'] views and influence who people vote for."

Century is one of two high schools in Carroll where students are divided into academies - smaller, career-themed schools within a school - as part of an educational concept designed to shrink and focus the traditional high school into a place where students learn lessons that directly relate to their futures as well as their next test.

Last night's debate was planned and put on by students in the Health, Human and Social Sciences Academy.

Most - from those greeting audience members at the doors and providing child care for parents who brought their youngsters, to those asking the questions - seemed well-versed and interested in the issues.

"This is my community, and I don't like it when people complain about stuff but never go ahead and try to change it," said Lynda Thorne, 15, a sophomore who worked with the organizational and public relations committees. "I want to change it, and here we can actually ask questions ourselves to try to understand why the people who run the system do the things they do."

But some students didn't entirely grasp all the particulars. In interviews before, one said she didn't think the school board affected her life.

Stacy DeSalvo, a family and consumer sciences teacher and the faculty organizer of the debate, quickly set her straight.

"Do you play sports?" DeSalvo asked. "The Board of Education approved pay for play [which requires student athletes to pay $60 per sport]. They decide the clothes you can wear to school. Funding for this school was a Board of Education issue. And they're the ones who allowed us to form academies here. Do you still think they don't affect your life?"

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