For would-be candidates, session is a reality check

Workshop examines inner workings of county school board

November 16, 2007|By Karen Nitkin | Karen Nitkin,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

Even after hearing about the long hours, low pay and emotional highs and lows of being a school board member, Faenita Dilworth was not discouraged. The Columbia resident, whose children are in high school and college, still plans to run.

"I just looked at the complexion and diversity of the board, and thought I had something to offer," she said.

Dilworth and more than 20 others, including former state Del. Neil F. Quinter, heard about the responsibilities and realities of school board membership during a two-hour-plus workshop Tuesday run by Diane Mikulis, the school board chairman, and board member Sandra H. French.

French, who is in her third term on the board, said the workshops have been held every other year for about 10 years, but Tuesday's meeting was the best attended to date.

"One reason we give this seminar is so that people run with their eyes open," French said. "One person cannot come in and change everything. You need to work as a team, you need collaboration. It's not wise for them to be campaigning as if they're, all by themselves, going to fix something."

Three board seats will be open in 2008, with two incumbents, Ellen Flynn Giles and Janet Siddiqui, running for re-election. Mikulis, who was elected to the board in 2004, is not seeking another term. The board has seven members and a student member, a high school junior or senior serving a one-year term. The student member can vote on some issues but not on budgets, boundary lines or personnel matters.

The filing deadline is Dec. 3. If more than six people run, a primary will be held Feb. 12, the same time as the presidential primary. Board members will be elected during the general election Nov. 4, 2008.

"This kind of workshop is selfish for us," French told those who attended the session. "It's so we have people campaigning who know what the job is about. You may think we're helping you, but by you coming here and at least hearing what the job entails, you are helping us."

Gladys Cecelia McCullough of Columbia said she found the meeting helpful but has not decided whether she will run. The grandmother of seven and a real estate agent, McCullough said the hours seemed manageable and the pay was actually better than she expected. "I wasn't expecting any pay, to be quite honest," she said.

Rick Corkran of Ellicott City, who recently retired from Hammond High School after 31 years of teaching math and computers in Howard County schools, said he has not made a decision whether to run.

"I'm keeping the options open," he said. "I'm retired, and obviously I'm looking at an alternative to being in the classroom every day."

According to French and Mikulis, a school board position will easily fill Corkran's time. Mikulis said the job, which pays a $12,000 annual stipend, easily takes 25 hours a week. "As chairman, I figure I spend about 40 hours a week doing this," she said. During budget season, members might work as many as 60 hours a week, she said.

"You're not doing this for the money, I guess is my point here," she said. "It's a fairly substantial time commitment. It's public service."

When school boundary lines are changed, she said, "you will get hundreds of e-mails from people arguing one way or the other."

She also described what she called "invitation management" - figuring out which school-related functions to attend.

French said one of the most emotionally challenging parts of the job is making decisions about suspensions, expulsions or firings. These actions can be appealed, and those appeals are heard and decided by the school board.

"We sit as a panel of judges, and we hear both sides," said French.

"We are lay people, and it's nerve-racking," she said. "I have to tell you, if you're on the board long enough, one of your neighbor's kids will come before you, and it's heartbreaking," she said.

Mikulis added: "You feel for the kids, you feel for the parents, but you've got to make the decision that's in the best interest of the entire school system."

On a similar theme, both members noted that the board is not divided into districts. All members represent the entire school system and are charged with making decisions that are best for the system as a whole.

"We do listen to everybody, and the goal is for us to try to pull all that information together and work something out," French said. "It's all about the children, it's all about education, it's all about doing what's best with the dollars you have."

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