Howard County voters went to the polls yesterday to nominate four nonpartisan Board of Education candidates from a field of 10, with the winners moving on to the general election for two available seats on the five-member board.
Technical difficulties prevented the primary election results from being posted at 10 p.m. - the time hoped for by Howard County election director Robert J. Antonetti Sr. But early returns - with half of the 98 precincts reporting - had as leaders Mary Kay Sigaty with 18.3 percent of the votes, Diane Mikulis at 16.9 percent, incumbent James P. O'Donnell with 13.6 percent and Frank Aquino with 13.4 percent.
The next-highest vote-getter by 11 p.m. was Joanne Heckman with 8.2 percent. A 10th candidate, Lise Mendel, dropped out of the race in January, too late to remove her name from the ballot. She received 3.2 percent of the early votes.
"I think I've been trying hard to do what I thought was right for the kids of Howard County," said O'Donnell, who was appointed to the board in January 2002 to serve the remainder of Laura Waters' four-year tenure after she quit.
"If I make it through the primaries, I think I will feel vindicated and at least have the feeling that a large enough number of people think I'm doing a good job," he said.
O'Donnell's seat is one of the two available in December when terms expire for him and for longtime member Sandra H. French, who did not run for re-election after nearly 12 years in the job.
Mikulis, who was watching the returns roll in at the county board of elections building with her husband and son, said the early results were promising.
"It's been an exhausting couple of weeks," she said, "really exhausting, mentally, physically and intellectually."
This year's primary race divided the candidates into two factions: those who want to overhaul Howard's school system, and those who think the general system mostly works but needs improvement.
Issues on the reformer side included recommendations to switch some crowded elementary and middle schools to year-round schedules (Cynthia Vaillancourt), divide the county into subdistricts (Roger Lerner), allow parents to choose their children's schools (Joanne Heckman) and record on audiotape - and disseminate information about - all closed meetings between board members (Allen Dyer).
"The future is ours because the present sure isn't," said Dyer, a reformist who in his second attempt at winning a board seat was trailing in early returns. Dyer also ran in 2000 when 18 people competed for two seats.
The hold-the-line candidates in the race were the front-runners last night. During their campaigns, they talked about improving the school system's antiquated budget process through better technology (Aquino), creating a volunteer office to co-ordinate efforts (Mikulis), better compensation and staff development for teachers (Sigaty), and easing educator workload (O'Donnell).
"Being on the Board of Education isn't just about one or two issues or three or four," Mikulis said. "It's about dealing with hundreds of issues and being able to handle that. Maybe that's what the voters recognized."
Not all of Howard is paying attention to who is at the helm of the school system. Many voters questioned on leaving the polls said they did not cast a ballot in the school board contest, or made their picks based on neighbor recommendations, names that sounded vaguely familiar or arbitrary selection.
"I just picked at random for the education part," said Cliff Curtis, a Columbia resident who chose Mary Kay Sigaty but could not say why. "I guess if I did have some kids and got involved with PTA, I'd know who's running and what's shaking."
Sigaty seemed to be a favorite among those who did not follow the race closely - her name popping up frequently as their choice - but also among education insiders.
"She cares about kids and about teachers and the education system," said Marilyn Holland, a foreign-language teacher at Long Reach High School in Columbia.
"There were some [candidates] that sounded like real crackpots," said Ellicott City resident Carol Myers, whose children have graduated. That's why she chose O'Donnell and Sigaty, she said, based on recommendations from the Howard County Education Association, which endorsed them, along with Diane Mikulis.
"All things considered, I decided to go with HCEA," Myers said.