Thomas Fidler, who takes over as president of the Harford County school board this month, anticipates such a busy year that he joked to his wife that he'd see her next July.
The 37-year-old will become school board president July 9. Fidler, the senior vice president and principal of Mackenzie Commercial Real Estate Services, has served on the board since 2003. His wife, Cheryl Ann, is a long-term substitute at Forest Hill Elementary School. He has two children in Harford County elementary schools.
Last week, Fidler sat down with The Sun to discuss some of the more pressing issues facing the county school system.
How did you get appointed?
I never inquired about it to the governor's office in 2003. I received a number of phone calls from business owners, community members and others that knew I had a wife working in the school system and kids in the schools. Someone submitted my name. I got a call from the governor's office asking if in fact I would consider it and to send my bio, and I did. My bio got someone's interest and I got a phone call from someone in the governor's office.
What's your position on the debate between elected and appointed school boards?
I am in favor of a compromise - of a blended school board. I'm concerned about going to a fully elected board because of special interests.
I'm concerned about a fully elected board because of the historic knowledge that current appointed board members bring to the table. If in January the school board were fully elected, it would set the school board back years, without having someone who's been on the board four to five years. You've got to have a knowledge pool about operational issues, negotiations, and the Capital Improvement Project.
What are your priorities for the school year?
No. 1 is communications. Two: Capital Improvement Project [CIP]. Three is curriculum issues with secondary school reform and Everyday Math.
Communication with the public has been highlighted as a weakness for the school board. What steps do you think the board and the school system can do to address that?
As a board member, it's difficult to get an e-mail from a parent [concerned about] a condition of a locker room or how a student was treated at a sporting event. That's not a board function. But certainly, when we get issues about CIP, secondary school reform, redistricting, those are board matters that we should give due diligence to. ...
So if someone came to us with a good idea about the use of computers in school, I'm going to make sure that person receives a letter with a signature of myself and the director of technology on it. I want that parent to know that we acknowledge the info - that it is being read and that it will be considered. It's a little way of making sure our community knows we're listening.
It bugs me sometimes to hear that we never give a response. During redistricting, it was nothing to get 70, 80 e-mails a week. It's just physically impossible to get back to everybody. We [school board members] are all full-time, employed, career people. I just make a comment during public meetings, acknowledging those comments. When there's a formal request for a response, yes, I want to do my best to make sure that person gets a response.
I want to find ways to enhance our responsiveness. It's a balancing act, because I do not want to micromanage the school system.
Explain your views regarding the Capital Improvement Project.
The CIP is the most critical component to the board's policymaking for the next five to seven years. We are effectively catching up with maintenance, school construction, school expansion because of the lack of funds set aside 10, 15 years ago. ...
Alternative financing is another means to get capital improvement projects started and completed. The administration building was through a third-party developer, who built the building for occupancy of the school system. We effectively underwrite the lease payments so at the end of the term, we own it. It afforded us to build that building today, and I wouldn't have done it any differently.
The level of efficiency of having all the school operators in the same building is 100 percent better than what it used to be.
Can that kind of method be used to build a school?
No question. There are other municipalities throughout the U.S. that heavily lean on the investment and commercial development community to build, improve and modernize schools.
The value of land has escalated so dramatically that it's cost-prohibitive for us to buy a piece of land. We were trying to think outside of the box to see if there were opportunities to take over vacant big-box retail shops or vacant office industrial buildings and convert to school buildings.