Board of Education candidates down to 4 after a long count

Incumbent, 3 challengers wait out computer woes

Two seats are at stake Nov. 2

Election 2004

Howard County

March 04, 2004|By Tricia Bishop | Tricia Bishop,SUN STAFF

Tuesday's primary election spilled well into yesterday when 15 hours after polls closed, the last of 98 Howard County precinct reports was accounted for, advancing four Board of Education candidates to vie for two seats in the general election.

Mary Kay Sigaty, whose campaign focused largely on supporting teachers, took the most votes: 11,147 - or 18.3 percent.

"I'm exhausted," she said yesterday afternoon. More than two months of intense campaigning has taken its toll on the hopefuls.

Diane Mikulis, an Ellicott City parent, came in second with 17 percent of the vote, followed by incumbent board member James P. O'Donnell, who received 13.2 percent.

Frank Aquino, an Ellicott City attorney, was fourth, garnering 12.7 percent of the 60,920 votes cast. Voters could pick as many as two candidates on ballots.

The next highest vote-getter, Joanne Heckman - who talked about increasing accountability within the school system - earned 8.4 percent of the vote. "I like to consider myself the first of the losers," she said, laughing.

The front-runners took an early lead, maintaining their top spots over the six others. But all said the comfort zone will not follow them to the general election Nov. 2.

"I'm not going to assume I'm safe," Mikulis said of her No. 2 spot. "Campaigning for the general election is going to be a little different. You're going to see more differentiation between the candidates. There has to be. We're going to have to give people reasons to vote for us."

Aquino said he was pleased he had survived the primaries, but slightly dismayed at the division of the candidates, who were mostly self-siphoned into two categories: reformists and conservatives. Aquino was in the latter camp.

"I don't think anyone should sell me short, in particular with respect to my desire to look at things in a different way," he said. "I don't think that the issues raised by the other five candidates were necessarily the most novel or cutting-edge."

Among the so-called reform candidates, Allen Dyer, who placed sixth, talked about following the law; Cynthia Vaillancourt (ninth) wanted to explore year-round schooling; Heckman suggested increased partnerships with social service agencies; Roger Lerner (eighth) asked for elimination of redistricting, and Robert Ballinger II (seventh) wanted school-based educators to have more say.

"These are all valid points," Aquino said.

"They're not wild ideas, they're not crazy ideas, they're just very hard to implement," Heckman said, because they can't happen overnight. What many of the reformists were trying to do, she added, was "take advantage of the campaign procedure" to introduce ideas the general public may not have thought of.

"We were raising consciousness and pointing out some things we could hope for and some things we could start considering," she said.

"That is the great thing about third parties in American political history and reform movements in general," Dyer said. "That is where ideas are created; it is the source; it is the future. Hopefully there will always be a strong reform contingent in American politics, and in particular in American public education."

Reform of the polling process caused problems, though, when a touch-screen system's debut was troubled with malfunctions. In Howard County, election officials had to physically deliver voting data to headquarters when the computer servers went down at the last minute.

"It was completely out of our hands," said election director Robert J. Antonetti Sr., who expected the votes to be counted and winners declared by 9:30 p.m. - 10 p.m. at the latest.

But the computer server that was supposed to start collecting data via modem soon after 8 p.m., when the polls closed, rejected the data because of a corrupt network-interface card. Precinct judges had to drive the electronic information, stored on 786 disks, to election headquarters and download it manually.

It was not until after midnight that the last of the accounted for cards was entered, and by 10 a.m. yesterday, information from one of Howard County's 98 precincts - Manor Woods Elementary School - was still missing. The Manor Woods cards, about the size of a credit card, had been misplaced in the shuffle.

"They weren't turned in by the chief judges," said Antonetti, who found them mistakenly placed among the counted votes about 11 a.m.

The final precinct cast only 199 more ballots for Board of Education, boosting O'Donnell's third-place finish by 23 votes.

"I feel good," he said yesterday. He was collecting campaign signs from polling places.

His focus over the next eight months until the general election will be on the work at hand, he said - creating a workable budget, furthering the school system's comprehensive plan for accelerated achievement and finding a new superintendent - but also on improving his campaigning.

"I don't have the name recognition the others have" at individual schools, said O'Donnell, who will make an extra effort to visit various spots throughout the county.

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