School board is called tough job

Chairman French tells prospective candidates of life in the spotlight

`You have to grow thick skin'

Howard County

November 05, 2003|By Tricia Bishop | Tricia Bishop,SUN STAFF

Serving on the Howard County Board of Education is not a job for the overly sensitive, Chairman Sandra H. French told an audience of about a dozen prospective candidates last night during an information session in Ellicott City.

Two of the five board seats will be up for grabs during the 2004 election - French's and that of James P. O'Donnell. So, the chairman and her vice chairman, Patricia S. Gordon, organized the gathering for the possible board members and perhaps help weed out the weak.

"Thick skin, that's what I was told when I got on the board - thick skin, you have to grow thick skin," French said, referring to handling the many complaints, critiques and accusations hurled by the press and public.

In the past year alone, members - who earn $12,000 to $14,000 annually and often spend 20 to 40 hours a week working on school issues - have received hate mail from parents, had to defend themselves in civil suits in court and been the subject of state legislation restricting their meeting practices.

No one has filed for candidacy with the county Board of Elections - deadline is 9 p.m. on Dec. 22 for the March 2 primary.

But Robert Ballinger, PTA vice president at Northfield Elementary School, said at the meeting that he likely will take on the challenge.

"I think it's important as a parent and also as a community member to be involved," said the father of two, who has delivered emotional testimony before the board about special education issues on several occasions.

Mary Kay Sigaty, a former teacher and 31-year Howard resident who ran for County Council last year, also said this week that she plans to file.

Sigaty, along with about two dozen others, had applied for a vacant board position this summer after elected member Virginia Charles resigned three years before her term was up, saying the job's demands and volatile relationships threatened her health.

But County Executive James N. Robey passed over Sigaty and the many education activists on his roster and instead appointed Joshua M. Kaufman, a relative unknown in the education world, to the position last month.

"I think that it was a surprise to a lot of people," said Ellen Giles, who has served on dozens of instruction committees and had also submitted a bid for the empty Charles' seat.

Giles, an energy-data analyst from Scaggsville, said yesterday during a telephone interview that she is still weighing the pros and cons of running. "My job is increasing in its demands and I'm finding it harder and harder to find the time," she said.

Others undecided about running for the four-year office include current member O'Donnell - who was appointed to his seat last year after board member Laura Waters also left three years early - and 2002 candidate Barry Tevelow, who lost to Courtney Watson by a 2-1 margin.

"I really thought I wasn't going to [run for office], but I'm considering it again," said Tevelow, who puts his chance of running at 40 percent.

O'Donnell, who skipped yesterday's session, said he will decide by the end of the month if he wants run for re-election - which could mean a year of campaigning by the time of the Nov. 2 general election. Winners will take office Dec. 6, 2004.

"If I do it, I know it needs to be for four years. And that's quite a commitment at my age," said O'Donnell, who turns 67 this month. "I'm thinking it all the way through and talking with a lot of people who have great input and a sense of what's involved."

Although French has said she intended to step down after what will be 12 years on the board, last night she left herself some wiggle room.

"I'm tired; I really do think it's time for new blood and new voices," she said, but then declared that she would run if Allen Dyer, an Ellicott City lawyer who has sued the school board over alleged open-meetings violations, put his hat in the ring.

"I left the door open," French said. She also said she would run for the office if there were fewer than five people signed up for the two open seats. If only four file for the vacancies, there would be no primary election.

Potential candidates for the nonpartisan, at-large board seats must be Howard County residents and registered voters. For filing requirements, call the Board of Elections at 410-313-5820.

Sun staff writer Larry Carson contributed to this article.

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