Election themes sharpen at forum

County executive rivals take sides on new school, board of education selection

February 26, 2006|By PHILLIP MCGOWAN | PHILLIP MCGOWAN,SUN REPORTER

One declared he would bring Anne Arundel County more into the 21st century. Another said he would rebuild the public's trust in how county government spends money. A third warned of overly flowery campaign promises.

The seven candidates for county executive have been sharpening their campaign messages for months, and last week the full list of contenders -- five Republicans and two Democrats -- started testing those themes during a debate on education issues in Annapolis.

Before an audience of more than 50 people, most of the candidates reaffirmed their support for building a 13th high school and for bringing more local control to the selection of the county school board. Some seven months before the party primaries, the cordial event further signified that the race to succeed two-term Democrat Janet S. Owens is well under way.

The broadest disagreement came on the selection process for the school board. Currently, a local nominating convention develops a list of school board candidates and forwards it to the governor for consideration, but the governor is not required to choose from the list. The county is among a handful of states that permit this process, and the lack of local control has been a source of consternation for many years. The General Assembly is again considering legislation to change the selection process.

Sheriff George F. Johnson IV, a Democrat, called for a countywide referendum to decide the matter. "I would like to see the answer come from them -- the Anne Arundel County residents," he said.

Del. David G. Boschert, a Republican who joined the race in November, supported the concept of an elected school board, so long as it was granted taxing authority. "So when everyone is elected, they have to be accountable to the people," he said.

Former state Del. Phillip D. Bissett, the 2002 Republican nominee for county executive, said that although he agrees that the current system works adequately, he supports the county executive selecting school board members, with the County Council playing an advisory role.

Two other Republican candidates, Del. John R. Leopold and Baltimore teacher Tom Angelis, also agreed, saying they wanted to take the governor out of the process. Angelis, however, said he would require a super-majority of the council -- or five of the seven members -- to approve an executive's selection.

Another Republican, Gregory V. Nourse, an assistant superintendent for the county school system, supported the county executive making some selections. He said the board may be too heavily represented by the business community.

Some of the candidates spoke of the county's financial challenges on the horizon, with a military job boom at Fort Meade likely to bring hundreds of millions of dollars in infrastructure improvements over the next decade, according to state estimates.

None of the candidates, however, supported scrapping the county's revenue-tax cap to compensate for the spending demands.

"I believe it is a wonderful planning tool," Bissett said.

Despite an estimated $100 million cost for a new high school, most candidates agreed on the need to build one in West County as Fort Meade prepares for an estimated 25,000 new jobs. A few candidates spoke of developing innovative funding solutions to fund it, such as public-private partnerships.

"If you wait for the state to provide the funds, you will wait for another 20 years," said Boschert of what he considered "21st-century thinking."

Not all were convinced that the school should be located in Crofton, long considered the favorite site for a new facility.

Angelis said the county should examine how the defense growth around Fort Meade will affect the demographics of West County. "I agree with the concept, but I don't agree that it must go to Crofton," he said.

School officials have pointed to more than 400 empty seats at Meade High School in rejecting the idea of a 13th high school.

Nourse said that proposed science additions at Meade and Arundel high schools will create an additional 500 seats. He said the estimated $100 million to build a high school should be diverted to school maintenance, security and the hiring of more teachers.

"Do we need to do it now?" Nourse said. "No."

Johnson said the vacant seats must be addressed before a new school should be built.

Democrat Dennis Callahan, the county parks and recreation director who formally joined the race Feb. 18, said a smaller school could be built, in the range of $60 million, which could expand based on demand.

Leopold stressed that he would work hard to secure state and federal dollars to fund additional school programs and infrastructure projects. He said his approach to spending would help regain the public's confidence.

"People don't generally trust county government to spend their money," he said.

Callahan warned the audience of more than 50 people to beware of lavish campaign promises regarding new projects.

"A lot of people will make promises," Callahan said. "I hope you're smart enough to separate the wheat from the chaff."

phill.mcgowan@baltsun.com

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