10 to run for seats on school board

Two spots will be created when the terms of French, O'Donnell expire in 2004

Howard County

December 24, 2003|By Tricia Bishop | Tricia Bishop,SUN STAFF

By 9 p.m. Monday -- the deadline to file for Howard County school board candidacy -- 10 people had stepped forward and declared themselves ready to take on a demanding job.

Two four-year-term Board of Education seats will be available at the end of next year: Terms expire for James P. O'Donnell, who was appointed after Laura Waters resigned, and Sandra H. French, who has served on the board for almost 12 years. The people who fill them will be responsible -- along with the three incumbents -- for decisions that affect nearly 50,000 children and the county's economy.

Board members field hundreds of calls, bear the brunt of criticism and spend from 20 to 40 hours per week analyzing education issues for a paycheck of $12,000 annually ($14,000 for the board chairman).

The field of 10 will be narrowed in the March primary, when the top four vote-getters will advance to the November election. The winners will take their posts in December.

Here are the candidates who have filed:

Frank Aquino: An attorney and father of three children in Howard schools, Aquino says the challenges he would tackle include attracting highly qualified educators, increasing public involvement in education and better using financial resources. Aquino has served on the school system's boundary line committee and testified at multiple hearings on budget and school crowding issues.

Robert Ballinger: The father of two young sons, Ballinger is PTA vice president at his older boy's school, Northfield Elementary. He said he hopes to become a member of the school board to open the doors of communication between the board and the public, and to address challenges of growth and planning. Ballinger is a member of the school system's newly created budget review committee, along with Aquino.

Allen Dyer: An Ellicott City attorney best known for accusing the school board of open-meetings violations and for suing members in Circuit Court, Dyer said he wants to serve on the board to ensure that the board's practices comply with sunshine laws. His platform has three pillars, he said: respect for the law, for people and for fiscal accountability. Dyer has a daughter who is a senior at River Hill High and a son who graduated in 2000.

Joanne Heckman: A school system critic, Heckman said she would help guarantee "the highest quality of public education" by making sure the board addresses issues of crowding and underfunding, and that members are publicly accessible. "These issues can be addressed only if we hold the school system, and each of its employees and elected officials, accountable for their actions," she said.

Roger Lerner: A business lawyer and father of three, Lerner said he could bring a fiscal sensibility to the school board. "I think the school board is in transition," he said. "It needs somebody with some energy and vigor and my kind of background of problem-solving and managing a large group." His focus would be "decentralization" and breaking what he sees as board bureaucratic control.

Lise Mendel: Mendel is a stay-at-home mother with two daughters at Phelps Luck Elementary and has several years of service on the school's PTA. She said the issues she would like to address include teacher workload, equity in redistricting and corporate involvement in the classroom, which she said appears to be getting out of hand. "I have not had a lot of experience in politics, but I'm willing to learn," she said.

Diane Mikulis: Mikulis -- a businesswoman, part-time journalist, PTA member and school volunteer -- said her priorities would be balancing school enrollments across the county and ensuring that system goals are based in reality. She has three children in Howard schools and has been an education activist for 10 years. Mikulis recently gave up a position writing for The Sun to run for a board seat.

James P. O'Donnell: Appointed to the board in January last year, O'Donnell said he is not ready to give up his position because he has unfinished business to address: the academic achievement gap, inequity issues "as far as facilities and programs are concerned," and teacher workload problems. O'Donnell, a retired businessman, has 12 years of experience serving on boards of education.

Mary Kay Sigaty: Having spent 11 years as a teacher and two decades being a parent, Sigaty said she could bring valuable experience to the school board, which she would put to use trying to bring qualified teachers to the area and streamlining board processes. "We need to safeguard this incredible asset that we have," Sigaty said referring to Howard's quality education, which drives much of the county's economy.

Cynthia Vaillancourt: Vaillancourt, who owns a pottery shop, has two children in Howard schools and wants to make sure "the quality of the schools that brought us to Howard County to begin with don't change." She said she would work to end constant redistricting, search for ways to increase funding and encourage better use of system buildings.

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