Stepping away from school board

Laura K. Rhodes wanted to make a difference in education. Most say she did.

August 07, 2005|By Gina Davis | Gina Davis,SUN STAFF

When Laura K. Rhodes decided to get involved with her daughter's school 14 years ago, she wasn't content to bake cookies for fundraisers or monitor tests in the classroom.

Rhodes, 43, who stepped down two weeks ago as school board vice president, wanted to make a difference for the parents and children of Carroll County. By most accounts, she has.

The year her daughter, Christine, started kindergarten, Rhodes joined the PTA. Four years later, she was eagerly climbing the rungs of influence as she first became president of the Piney Ridge Elementary PTA, then Winfield Elementary's PTA and eventually the Carroll County Council of PTAs.

She also spent countless hours crisscrossing the state leading workshops for the Maryland PTA and teaching parents how to be advocates for their children.

By the time Rhodes ran for a seat on the school board three years ago, the self-described "professional full-time volunteer" was a wellspring of information for parents clamoring to know more about their children's education. She was the top vote-getter among six candidates.

"I think I'm ready to go from trying to influence votes to being one who has a vote and the ability to enact a change," Rhodes said in a Sun article after she filed her candidacy in June 2002. She said she wanted to help restore the system she had "fallen in love with" when she and her husband, Bill, moved to Carroll from Florida in 1986.

The school system had begun to slip in statewide academic rankings - having fallen from first- and second-place standings to sixth, she said. Since her election, the school system has rebounded academically.

"We're back up" to second and third among 24 systems, she said. "It's been nice to have been able to be a part of that."

When Rhodes recently announced her resignation from the board - stressing the need to return to work full time to help with her family's finances and an inability to juggle the time demands of work, family and the board - she said she had struggled with the decision for a year.

Concerns

She worried that she would be letting people down by quitting before the end of her term, which would have expired next year, but that she needed to do what was best for her family.

"There are people in the school system who count on me, and I'm a person who always finishes my commitments," she said. "I had already decided not to run for re-election, but I had hoped to be able to complete the term of my office. ... But life has changed for me since being elected."

Last summer, Rhodes, who has worked as a psychologist and a real estate agent, became the manager of community health improvement at the nonprofit Partnership for a Healthier Carroll County.

She said she needed to help with the costs of sending her daughter to Villa Julie College, where she will be a sophomore this fall.

In addition to the financial pressures, Rhodes said it had become increasingly difficult to juggle the time demands of a full-time job and her nearly full-time commitment to the school board with her family's needs.

"I tried to pare back [the time spent on board duties] this year ... but I was still feeling like I wasn't giving my family what they deserved," she said.

For the first two years of her term, Rhodes threw herself into her board work. She said she averaged 30 to 40 hours a week on board business, such as researching the issues and visiting schools. She aimed to spend at least one full day in each of the county's 40 schools.

"When I ran [for school board], my sole goal was to be useful," said the Mount Airy resident, who also has a son, Eric, 15, a sophomore at South Carroll High in Winfield. "I always felt that you have no right to criticize unless you're willing to be part of the solution. I wanted to be part of the solution."

Her efforts and determination to know the issues earned her a reputation for being well-prepared to make decisions.

"She has such tremendous knowledge [about the issues]," said board member Cynthia L. Foley, who was elected last year. "She knows it, understands it and articulates it. ... She's a strong advocate for students and parents."

Summer resignation

Rhodes said she chose to resign during the summer in the hopes that the board could find her replacement in time for the approaching school year.

Board President Gary W. Bauer said the board is accepting letters and resumes until Aug. 15 from anyone interested in finishing Rhodes' term.

He said the board plans to send the names of up to three nominees to Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. - who has the responsibility of appointing replacements - by the end of this month. Interested candidates also may write directly to the governor to seek the post.

By law, the governor is not limited to the board's recommendations and can appoint someone of his choosing.

In the meantime, Rhodes said, she will be keeping a watchful eye on issues close to her heart, such as the funding for and the effectiveness of small learning communities as well as the system's drug possession policy.

And she plans to regularly attend board meetings or watch them from home.

"You'll see me on the other side of the podium using my three minutes" during the citizen-participation period at the school board's monthly meetings, she said. "I'll be a verbal member of the community," she added. "As I always was."

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