Varied issues drive contest

Candidates lay out priorities for vote that could reshape Board of Education

Maryland Votes 2006

September 03, 2006|By John-John Williams IV | John-John Williams IV,sun reporter

With five seats up for grabs and a historic expansion to seven members set to take place by the year's end, it is anyone's guess what the Howard County Board of Education will look like after the general election.

Voters will get a better sense of that after the Sept. 12 primary election, when the field of 14 candidates is whittled to 10 who will appear on the November ballot.

And if incumbents Joshua Kaufman and Patricia S. Gordon are selected during the primary, they still must survive the November vote. Depending on the outcome, there is a chance that only one current board member -- Diane Mikulis, the vice chairman -- will remain.

Mary Kay Sigaty, whose term expires in 2008, is running for the County Council and plans to leave her board seat should she win in November. And member Courtney Watson, who also is running for a County Council seat, will leave her school board position when her term expires this year.

For months now, the hopefuls looking to oversee one of the state's top-ranked school systems have been pushing their views door to door and at small or informal meet-the-candidate sessions around the county.

That campaigning served as a prelude to the workout they received from voters at Tuesday's two-hour forum sponsored by the League of Women Voters and the Howard County PTA Council.

The questions, selected by the moderator, covered a range of issues affecting the school system, including redistricting, inclusion classes, teacher workload, inequities between old and new facilities, new graduation requirements, the roles of administrators and central office personnel in the classroom and the disparity in test scores among student groups.

But it was the subject of vocational education that drew some of the most detailed discussion.

Kaufman, in particular, was dumbfounded by the perception among some voters that the system lacks significant vocational training programs.

"We obviously need to do a better job getting the word out," said Kaufman of the system's vocational offerings.

The forum was held in the Applications and Research Laboratory, site of the school system's vocational programs. "This is something that perhaps was not a high priority in the past. ... It is now," Kaufman said.

Di Zou, a recent graduate of Glenelg High School, said his former school did a poor job of providing students with vocational training.

"I don't think they do any type of job to prepare you for the work force," said Zou, who attends the University of Maryland, College Park. "I don't think we have a vocational education system."

Allen Dyer, a lawyer and computer consultant, said that students need more skilled training and life skills.

"Our schools do little with that," Dyer said. "As a result, we have a lot of students dropping out."

Ellen Flynn Giles, former chairwoman of the Citizens Advisory Committee, called the Applications and Research Laboratory the best-kept secret in the county.

"Enrollment in the academy is up," Giles said.

Frank Aquino, an attorney, said there is a need for vocational training in high school.

"Not everyone is going to college," Aquino said. "Not everyone needs to go to college. We need to be flexible."

Aquino added: "Going into trades today is not the same. You are doing a lot more computer work."

Marcelino M. Bedolla, a science teacher in Baltimore, was in favor of a survey that would identify the greatest areas for training.

"Once we can identify the skills, we can sponsor partnerships," Bedolla said.

And incumbent board member Patricia S. Gordon invited the public to attend the school system's new $2.7 million Automotive Technology Laboratory, which is in the Applications and Research Laboratory.

"We touch all bases," Gordon said.

Redistricting, which has become an annual process in the system as the population grows, also prompted intense discussion.

Dyer said he is in favor of a feeder school system in place of redistricting.

"It's important that children are allowed to go through school with their peers," Dyer said.

Roger J. Lerner, an attorney and business adviser, also favored a feeder school system.

"As we do it now is about as harmful as it can be," Lerner said. He added that under a permanent feeder system, there would be smaller and fewer changes.

Larry Cohen, a retired school system employee, said his older daughter was redistricted, which resulted in one daughter attending Atholton High School and the other Wilde Lake High School.

"We survived it," Cohen said. "It's not something I would prefer. I would like to limit it [redistricting] as much as possible."

Dr. Janet Siddiqui, a pediatrician, said that children are more resilient than they are given credit for. "But stability is important in a child's life. I've seen families who have gone through three changes in four years. That is not acceptable."

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