Fresh faces on school board

Unofficial winners in Tuesday's race a mix of newcomers, system veterans

November 10, 2006|By John-John Williams IV | John-John Williams IV,sun reporter

Two years ago, Frank Aquino barely missed winning a seat on the Howard County school board. After his loss, he regrouped and joined several school system committees and even encouraged the school system to adopt a civility policy.

His efforts paid off Tuesday when Aquino, 48, was the top vote-getter. Though with more than 10,000 absentee ballots still being counted, the top five vote-getters are not official.

"I worked very hard for this," said Aquino, an attorney and general counsel for an environmental consulting and engineering company. "This is not something that I took lightly. I'd like to think the results are the result of very hard work."

Aquino will be joined next month on the new board by a number of faces familiar to those in the school system, such as:

Larry Cohen, 56, a retired school system administrator;

Sandra H. French, 62, a retired educator, former chairman of the school board and now a substitute teacher in county secondary schools;

Ellen Flynn Giles, 55, a senior editor and analyst with Platts, a division of McGraw-Hill Co., who has been a fixture in school PTAs and system-wide committees for 22 years; and

Board incumbent Patricia S. Gordon, 82, a former vice chairman of the board and a retired elementary school principal.

The board, which is expanded to seven members, will undergo a nearly complete makeover.

Diane Mikulis is the only member who will return to the board, filling out a term that ends in 2008. Courtney Watson, who won a County Council seat in District 1, will leave her school board position when her term expires this year.

And Mary Kay Sigaty, whose term expires in 2008, will leave the board later this month now that she has won the District 4 County Council seat. Her position will filled by an appointment from Ken Ulman, the newly elected county executive.

Different routes

The new members took a variety of routes to the panel, which sets school policy for the district.

French, who served on the board from 1992 to 2004, called it quits two years ago after a difficult term that witnessed grade-changing scandals, the departure of Superintendent John R. O'Rourke and a strenuous redistricting process, among other upheavals.

French says the time off made her appreciate the board, and in May she was one of the last group of candidates to announce that she would seek a spot on the newly expanded board.

"I feel as if I won for the first time," French said Wednesday evening while enjoying a celebratory dinner with her husband and son. She unofficially finished second. "I feel totally elated."

She looks forward to the challenge of working with a new group of board members.

"I think that the biggest concern is for the board to come together and become unified," French said. "We can't have five new members coming on and going in different tangents. That's not good leadership."

Cohen, who unofficially finished fourth, said he is looking forward to getting to know the new board members.

"We need to get to know each other, get to know each other's strengths and work as a team," Cohen said. "We are a board, we are not one person running the show."

Giles, who unofficially finished fifth, said she expects to be a little more busy as she prepares her transition to the board.

"I think there is training scheduled next week," Giles said. "This is the most busy time, except for budgets for the board."

Gordon, the first African-American elected to the school board in Howard County, said she wants to continue her focus on the achievement gap, especially among African-American students.

"They are moving up, but they are still low," said Gordon, who unofficially finished third.

Gordon said she also wants to introduce foreign languages at the primary level and expand psychological services in the system.

Sigaty said she intends to work on the board this month.

"I don't want to leave my colleagues a board member short," Sigaty said from her home Wednesday.

Missing will be Joshua Kaufman, the current board chairman, who was defeated Tuesday.

Appointed to the board in 2003 and well-respected among peers and throughout the school system, he may have been hurt by his alliance with Republican County Council Chairman Christopher J. Merdon.

Merdon -- who unsuccessfully campaigned for county executive -- and Kaufman last month announced a proposal to transform Howard County's school system into a high-tech "School System of the Future." The plan included free laptop computers for about 3,500 incoming high school freshman next year; a cost of up to $4 million.

At the time, Kaufman said he was politically neutral and was not endorsing Merdon's candidacy.

Emotional speech

During an emotional speech to his supporters election night, Merdon hinted that his alliance with Kaufman would probably cost Kaufman a seat on the school board.

"Josh Kaufman stuck his neck out and potentially could lose the election," Merdon said.

On Thursday afternoon, Kaufman said he felt that lack of name recognition, not his perceived alliance with Merdon, probably cost him the election.

"It may have been such a crowded ballot that that might have dominated people's attention," Kaufman said. "I also think that there were a lot of strong candidates."

Kaufman said he was "grateful for the opportunity that I had, and I feel that I left the school system in a better place than I found it."

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