Diversity in the balance

Spotlight falls on ethnicity as Ulman prepares to fill a vacant seat on county school board

January 19, 2007|By John-John Williams IV | John-John Williams IV,sun reporter

Ethnic diversity will be an important factor when Howard County Executive Ken Ulman announces his choice to fill a vacant seat on the school board.

"I've had a number of meetings with people that care that county government reflects the diversity of our community," Ulman said. "It is one of the factors that we are looking at. The biggest factor is appointing someone who believes in keeping our school system No. 1 in the state."

Ulman said he has a "short list" of potential candidates, and he expects to make a decision by the end of this month.

"A majority of the [people on the] short list are ethnic minorities," Ulman said. "The overriding factor will be the best person who reflects my values: acceptance, diversity and opportunity."

Ulman has to replace former board member Mary Kay Sigaty, who left her position early when she won a County Council seat in November.

As the reputation of the school system has grown, so has the county's population and diversity. In 2006, ethnic minorities made up almost 40 percent of the student population. In 1986, ethnic minorities accounted for 19 percent.

Despite the diversification in its enrollment, the school board has not reflected those changes.

Patricia Gordon was the first African-American elected to the board in 2000 -- an African-American was appointed to the board in the early 1980s -- and she remains the only ethnic minority on the panel.

Sigaty and Gordon, along with others in the education community, have raised the issue of diversity on the school board for months.

"This is something that Ken should think about," said Gordon. "He's going to have a tough job. There are going to be a lot of groups that will be clamoring for his attention."

Diversity among administrative leaders is not a question in the system. Superintendent Sydney L. Cousin and several top-ranking leaders are African-American.

Carl W. Smith, executive director of Maryland Association of Boards of Education, said school boards should reflect student population.

"We are concerned that we have a well-integrated and diverse core of board members," said Smith, whose nonprofit organization does not keep statistics on the ethnic makeup of school boards. "We certainly are concerned that school boards across the state are represented on a whole. It is something that we care about."

Di Zou, an 18-year-old freshman at the University of Maryland, wants Ulman to consider him for the position. A graduate of Glenelg High School, Zou unsuccessfully ran for a board seat in November.

Zou thinks his Chinese heritage would be an asset on the board.

"There are a lot of minorities in Howard County. It would be nice to have more minority representation," said Zou. "They have their own views. It would be something different. It wouldn't be the same thing."

Marcelino M. Bedolla, a 70-year-old Hispanic science teacher in Baltimore City who has twice run unsuccessfully for the school board, said he would "seriously consider" an appointment by Ulman.

"[Ulman] should push for some diversity on there whether it be Hispanic or Korean or some other minority in the county," said Bedolla, a Mexican-American who has lived in Howard County since 1970. "I ran because I think I can make a difference with my perspective, my life experiences."

Zou, who has appeared at several board meetings and school system-related events since the general election, said he would also accept an appointment by Ulman.

"I wanted a school board seat," Zou said. "I ran for it, and I wanted to get elected. If I was appointed to it, I would want to take it."

john-john.williams@baltsun.com

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