Schools, growth are focus of council race

Democrat Baca challenges incumbent Vitale

Maryland Votes 2006

October 15, 2006|By Phillip McGowan | Phillip McGowan,sun reporter

As it prepares for a growth boom in West County, Anne Arundel faces the challenge of updating or replacing dilapidated schools and other infrastructure in the more established eastern portion.

With frustration growing over the neglect of schools on the Broadneck Peninsula, both candidates running for the County Council in District 5 - Republican incumbent Cathleen M. Vitale and Democrat A.J. "Tito" Baca - say they would be the better advocate to secure funding.

Vitale was appointed in 2000 and won election to the seat in 2002. During her tenure, the county has scheduled Severna Park Middle for a $60 million reconstruction, Benfield Elementary for a $13.7 million overhaul and Arnold Elementary for $2 million in improvements.

The 42-year-old lawyer, a Severna Park resident, said school construction funding is a priority in the next term. She has been criticized for not delivering more.

Vitale acknowledged that a military job expansion at Fort Meade will demand many county resources. But she said a balance can be struck to overhaul Severna Park High and other feeder schools.

"It's our turn," she said. "It's our turn."

Severna Park High, at risk of losing accreditation because of its deteriorating condition, is scheduled for a $108 million overhaul set to begin within five years. A study commissioned by the school board this year also recommended replacing aging Folger McKinsey Elementary School at a cost of $24 million.

Baca, who entered the race in July, is an associate professor at Montgomery College and an instructor at Anne Arundel Community College. The 36-year-old Arnold resident said his background gives him an edge in understanding how to best help educators.

"We have to support them," said Baca, who was nominated by the county's Democratic Central Committee in July to challenge Vitale. "We have to do that. I don't think anyone but a teacher can understand that."

Baca said he would do a better job than Vitale of agitating for change and bringing to light the bleak state of schools.

He said his creative policy positions have won over residents. He supports a dedicated fee to rehabilitate county waterways damaged by storm-water runoff, and he backs creating other dedicated fees to fix schools and improvement infrastructure.

The Democrat has called for a smoking ban for all bars and restaurants in Anne Arundel County, and he said the county must do more to address uncontrolled growth.

"No one gave us a chance at the beginning of this race, and that's not the case anymore," Baca said.

History is on Vitale's side. In the past four elections, the Republican candidate in District 5 has won with at least 61 percent of the vote. The district has 23,687 registered Republicans, 18,766 Democrats and 8,710 independents.

Vitale also has far more money. In the current election cycle, she has raised more than $83,000, some from developers, architects and real estate companies. This year, she has raised close to $30,000 and has spent nearly $5,000. Baca said he has raised a few thousand dollars. (The state Board of Elections Web site did not show a record of his campaign-finance reports.)

"Constituents will have to decide," Baca said. "Are they looking for someone who is prone to development, or are they looking for someone who doesn't have big business in their pocket and can vote with a clean conscience?"

Vitale noted that about 90 percent of her donations come from residents, small businesses and her clients. "If I am on the take," she said, "they why are [developers angry] at me so often?"

Vitale has also served on the state Critical Area Commission, which regulates development in the Chesapeake Bay watershed in Maryland. She was part of a subcommittee that persuaded the full commission to block a proposed $1 billion golf resort near Blackwater National Wildlife Refuge on the Eastern Shore.

She said her council experience would be valuable in the next four years as the county faces financial uncertainty, given an expected drop in real estate tax revenues.

Vitale also said she would support raising impact fees for developers on residential developments to fund infrastructure improvements.

Vitale said she agrees that restoring waterways damaged by storm-water runoff is needed, but opposes charging every household.

"It doesn't matter what you call it; it's money out of someone's pocket," Vitale said.

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