Howard County Board of Education candidate Robert Ballinger has been a fixture at this year's county fair. He has been gathering ideas from county residents on what they believe works in the school system and what could be changed. He has discovered that people don't mind taking a break from the shows, auctions and food lines to offer their opinions.
"They talk about individual issues with the schools. They think that teachers in the classroom, knowing the students and knowing the involvement of the families, should have more leeway," said Ballinger, who lives in the Dorsey Hall community in Ellicott City. He is running for a school board seat for the second time. He ran unsuccessfully in 2004.
He has taken what he's heard at the fairgrounds and incorporated it into a platform that includes a fiscally responsible budget for the school system and a framework for addressing parent and teacher concerns.
A lifetime resident of the Baltimore area, Ballinger is a graduate of Western Maryland College, a former director of communications for the Maryland Department of the Environment and an on-air producer with WBFF-TV. He said he has used his communications background to articulate his vision and to hear residents' concerns.
Ballinger says he is a strong advocate of charter schools and that allowing a child to attend a school where he or she can realize potential "is the most important thing we can do as board members."
Ballinger has two sons who attend county schools — a 14-year-old who will be a freshman at Wilde Lake High and an 11-year-old who will attend Dunloggin Middle. His elder son has been diagnosed with autism, and Ballinger said his family has had positive experiences with the county's special-needs approach. But he said he knows that has not been the case for every family.
Susan Benzing of Columbia, who teaches Ballinger's elder son in religious education class at St. Louis Catholic Church in Clarksville, says Ballinger would offer the board the perspective of a parent with a special-needs child.
"He's very involved and active," she said. "At our religious-ed class, parents attend, and you can see [Ballinger] not only involved with his kids but other kids as well. "
Ballinger said board members should spend the taxpayers' money for schools with the same discretion they would exercise when spending their own.
"We're in some very trying times economically," Ballinger said. "We need to, as members of the school board, remember that the money we spend is money that is taken from the citizens of Howard County and we need to make sure that we fund the programs and offer the best quality teaching environment."
He has questioned the school system's decision in 2004 to renovate Mount Hebron High School. He believes that a school that reflected the system's push toward green technology should have been built.
"We could have built a state-of-the-art, brand-new high school with environmental science techniques and green buildings," Ballinger said. "We could have had a magnet school for kids who would be interested in environmental science."
Ballinger said that reaching out to residents about their concerns has taught him that while one approach to education might work well for one area of the county, it might not be feasible in another.
"Someone from Columbia told me, 'Mr. Ballinger, you're fortunate that your PTA can raise the money [for programs], but we can't do that,' " he said. "Something that might be very successful in the community I live in is not happening in Western Howard County or Elkridge or Columbia. The challenges are not being addressed the same way, and that's very enlightening to me, because I am a little disheartened at the process and that every school is not treated equally."
With about a month left before the primary election, Ballinger said he's connected with many teachers and parents who say they are eager to be heard.
"Teachers come up to me at the fair and say, 'Thank you for saying you support teachers,' " Ballinger said. "That makes me feel good, because … teaching, I think, is one of the most challenging and probably one of the most rewarding jobs you can have. When you can see children progress and receive a quality education and know that you might have taught a leader of tomorrow, that's a great thing."
Eleven candidates are vying for four seats in the primary, which will be held Sept. 14. The general election is Nov. 2.
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