Campaigning takes back seat in board race

Lack of burning controversy makes for quieter election year

Carroll County

October 06, 2004|By Gina Davis | Gina Davis,SUN STAFF

By all accounts, campaigning efforts for two open seats on the Carroll County school board have been decidedly low key.

The candidates - incumbent Thomas G. Hiltz and newcomers Cynthia L. Foley, David Stysley and Gary G. Weishaar - point to a lack of controversy in the school system as the reason they have had to do less campaigning than previous candidates.

"I believe that most people are happy with the direction the board is going ... and the stewardship the board is providing," Hiltz said. "That has resulted in fewer candidates, less discontentment."

This year's race stands in stark contrast to 2000, when two dozen people competed for two seats on the five-member panel during a tumultuous time for the county's school district. At the time, the school system was fighting multimillion-dollar lawsuits and a county grand jury investigation into bungled school construction projects and the Board of Education's management style.

The nonpartisan elections for the five-member school board are staggered, with two seats open in presidential election years and three slots available in the years of gubernatorial contests.

With the lack of campaigning - all have said they had done little to none so far - this year's candidates appear to be relying on the few candidate forums that have been scheduled to get their messages across to voters, who go to the polls Nov. 2.

At a candidates forum this week sponsored by the Carroll County Democratic Club, the candidates voiced their positions on issues ranging from funding state-mandated initiatives such as all-day kindergarten to school vouchers.

When asked what they consider the most important problem the school system will face during the next four years, the candidates pointed to crowded schools, the state mandate to provide all-day kindergarten, student testing initiatives such as the Maryland High School Assessments, maintaining student achievement with shrinking funding resources, and attracting and retaining high-quality teachers.

"The Board of Education must unify its efforts" to obtain adequate funding for initiatives such as full-day kindergarten, said Stysley, 25, of Westminster, chairman of the Carroll County Green Party and a graduate student at McDaniel College. "I would work toward getting the funding," he said.

Stysley said that if funding isn't readily available, the school board might need to consider setting its own schedule for implementing full-day kindergarten rather than adhering to the state mandate of providing it to all pupils by 2007.

Weishaar, a 44-year-old father of three from Sykesville, agreed that, with limited funding, it might be necessary to consider alternatives for implementing full-day kindergarten. He said he would propose using county-regulated prekindergarten facilities for full-day kindergarten to avoid construction and renovation costs associated with creating additional classroom space.

Foley said she is concerned that people are beginning to put too much emphasis on testing initiatives and too much stress on students.

"We have a lower percentage of students not passing the [Maryland High School Assessments] than others, but I'm still looking at students being put through so much remediation" to get them to pass these tests, said Foley, a 47-year-old mother of four from Westminster. Foley, who has been a fixture at school board meetings in recent years, said that while a majority of the county's high school students passed last year's high school assessments in English, algebra, biology and government, she is concerned that nearly 30 percent of the students failed.

Hiltz said that if he is re-elected to a second term, he would work toward finding the best ways to use resources to maintain student achievement.

"We've been doing more with less for a long time," said the 45-year-old father of three, who lives in Woodbine. He said Carroll's spending per pupil is among the lowest in the state - 22nd out of 24 districts - at $7,724. But "we have to find ways to use resources smarter, too."

Among the questions posed by audience members was whether any of the candidates supported school voucher programs that would allow students to leave the public school system at the county's expense.

Hiltz said that while he likes "the idea of competition for the public school system," he doesn't support public funding for voucher programs. "If a public school is failing and efforts to remediate are failing the children," then vouchers would be an acceptable resolution, he said.

Although Weishaar agreed that "competition is good at any level," he said he doesn't "necessarily wholeheartedly back vouchers" as the answer to failing schools.

Stysley said he opposes vouchers. If a school is failing, efforts should be made to reorganize and improve the educational standards there, he said.

Foley, who agreed with Hiltz's approach, added, "I don't think Carroll County will ever have to deal with this because ... we have too many people who care here, and it's just hard to believe [vouchers] will ever be an issue here."

The school board candidates have been invited to one other public forum. The Carroll County branch of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People is scheduled to hold a forum from 7 p.m. to 8:30 p.m. Oct. 28 at Westminster Senior Center.

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