School board member ends race

O'Donnell takes responsibility for what he calls panel's failings

not a `viable candidate,' he says

Three hopefuls now seeking two seats

Howard County

August 26, 2004|By Hanah Cho | Hanah Cho,SUN STAFF

Howard County Board of Education member James P. O'Donnell has dropped out of the election, saying he is taking responsibility for the failures of the board. O'Donnell said yesterday that he is no longer a "viable candidate," leaving three candidates to compete for two seats in November.

O'Donnell, a retired Ellicott City business executive, filed papers to withdraw from the race Tuesday, the deadline to pull out, said Evelyn M. Purcell, the acting director of the Howard County Board of Elections. O'Donnell was running for re-election after being appointed in 2001 to fill a vacancy on the five-member school board.

The remaining candidates - Frank Aquino, Diane Mikulis and Mary Kay Sigaty - will vie for O'Donnell's seat and that of Sandra H. French, who is leaving the board after almost 12 years. Their terms expire in December.

O'Donnell, 67, described his decision to drop out as a realistic move after reflecting on the school board's performance and taking responsibility for his part in it.

"If you look back at five or six years ago, the school system has been hit with one problem, one embarrassment after another," O'Donnell said. "In the almost 2 1/2 years I've been on the board, that pattern of problems continued. Really, not being a viable candidate, I really didn't think it was right for me to have supporters asking people to endorse me when I'm really not happy with the track record the board has put up."

He added: "The buck stops with the board. The board obviously has not been able to perform well for quite some time."

As examples, O'Donnell noted the school system falling short of state requirements for high school instructional time, which will be corrected this school year; violations of the open meetings law; and grade-tampering controversies at Centennial and Oakland Mills high schools.

Board members received flak from Centennial parents, teachers and the community over their unanimous decision in May to reverse the demotions of two top county administrators accused of abusing their power to obtain preferential treatment for the daughter of one of them, who was a student at the Ellicott City school.

O'Donnell stands by the decision, and said the board needs to assume responsibility for what happened at Centennial and at Oakland Mills.

"You have to look at the record, and you have to conclude that this happened on your watch," he said. "A lot of good things that could have happened on your watch didn't happen. You're not happy with the track record, you can't very well say to your supporters, `Go out there and convince people that I'm the guy.'"

O'Donnell's decision to withdraw from the race did not come as a surprise. In June, O'Donnell's letter to the editor in The Sun fueled rumors that he might drop out. The letter, which explained O'Donnell's decision in the Centennial controversy, contained a line that stated that he would limit his campaign.

In a July interview, O'Donnell said: "Somewhere along the line, I have to decide to either reinvigorate my campaign efforts or accept the fact that any board member running in an environment like this has no chance."

Said Mikulis: "I hadn't seen much of him over the summer, even though campaigning was low-key. He didn't have a presence."

With O'Donnell out of the election, the dynamics of the race will change, Sigaty said.

"The voters will be looking at three people who have never done the job before and none of us will be running against a sitting board member," she said. "The focus will be on what each of us has to offer."

Although O'Donnell said he wished he had done more, he pointed to several issues he advocated, including easing crowded schools, reducing teacher workload and providing more money for capital projects.

O'Donnell was executive vice president of administration and member services for the National Association of Security Dealers from 1989 to 1996. He worked 17 years before that in management at the Midwest Stock Exchange.

"He was very thorough," French said. "When he first joined the board, all four women ... were educators, so Jim brought a business perspective that was appreciated."

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