School board candidates make final rally

Each campaign trying to distinguish itself

Howard County

October 31, 2004|By Hanah Cho | Hanah Cho,SUN STAFF

In the final days of campaigning, the three candidates for the Howard County Board of Education are counting on any advantage they have to stand out and secure votes for Tuesday's election.

"I don't care if it's the signs, or the knocks on thousands of doors or people happen to see me at a forum, or a friend of a friend saw me at a forum and was impressed, or my friends got the word out, or my head is screwed on straight," said Frank J. Aquino, an Ellicott City business lawyer. "Whatever it is, I'll take it."

By and large, voters have perceived Aquino, Diane Mikulis and Mary Kay Sigaty as one and the same throughout the campaign. The school board hopefuls agree on many issues, including increasing student achievement, closing the achievement gap among races, and attracting and retaining highly qualified teachers.

FOR THE RECORD - An article in yesterday's Howard County section about Board of Education candidates incorrectly identified the color of Diane Mikulis' campaign signs. Mikulis' signs are blue and white.
The Sun regrets the error.

The candidates got that message during several lightly attended forums since the March primary election, in which Sigaty was the top vote-getter, followed by Mikulis and Aquino. Two candidates will replace Sandra H. French and James O'Donnell, whose terms expire in December.

"We have similar views and approaches in improving the school system," Mikulis said of the candidates. "We also have the same goals: We want to improve academic performance, and we see the teachers as part of that."

But there are differences.

Aquino, a father of three children in the school system, points to his legal background as vice president and general counsel for an environmental engineering and consulting firm. He has dealt with conflict resolution, commercial litigation and other legal issues, including employment and insurance - tools that can be translated to school board governance, he said.

"I consider myself a consensus-builder," said Aquino, who has served on numerous school committees and PTAs. "I work to make change where change is needed. I will pick my battles. I have a more deliberate approach and I recognize where positive change may be needed."

Mikulis also has three children in the school system. A former freelance correspondent for The Sun, Mikulis said she would draw from her 17 years of business experience to improve the management of the nearly 48,000-student school system.

Ultimately, the voters will have to ask themselves, "Who can do the job? It comes down to who will do the job," Mikulis said.

"I don't have a full-time job," said Mikulis, a parent volunteer who has served on various PTAs for 10 years. "I have time available. I feel like I'm in touch with what's going on. I'll continue to be an active volunteer. I'll be at the schools working, which enables me to be in touch with what's going on with students and have discussions with teachers and administrators to see how things are doing."

While Aquino and Mikulis are new to campaigning, Sigaty is not. The former teacher narrowly lost in the County Council primary in 2002, but Sigaty points to that experience and other countywide involvement, such as serving on the Wilde Lake Village Board, as a plus.

"I keep thinking education needs to be done as part of the continuum of what's going on in Howard County," said Sigaty, whose two children attended county schools and now are in college. "We don't do education in a vacuum. It's important for board members to think broadly."

Not knowing exactly what convinces a voter to choose their names on the ballot, the candidates have turned to all types of methods to reach the record number of registrants - 164,193 - in Howard County.

That has meant waving signs on streets, attending every school board meeting and related functions and displaying their signs on their cars and canvassing neighborhoods.

"That's why we have a multifaceted campaign," Mikulis said. "The people who want to be educated on the issues will do that. ... There are many people going to the polls not having given it a thought. Some of them may have asked their neighbors. Word of mouth is important. That's where the signs come in."

The candidates recall former school board member Laura Waters, who some say was elected in 1998 because voters remembered the trademark cap she wore in all of her campaign photos.

"What you have to do is get your name out, meet as many people as you can and try to be as sensitive as you can to all of their concerns," Aquino said.

In that regard, Aquino designed a sign that turned the first letter of his last name into a grade of "A-plus." Sigaty incorporated a pencil into her sign, while the color red is prominent in Mikulis' signs.

"The object is to get elected," said Sigaty, a freelance theater consultant. "What you do is try to have a zippy sign because people go, `Oh, that's cool.' That tells you something about someone, which, by the way, I think we did."

Polls in the county will be open from 7 a.m. to 8 p.m.

Frank J. Aquino

Residence: Ellicott City

Age: 46

Occupation: Vice president and general counsel for an environmental engineering and consulting services company.

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