Healthy, diverse field of candidates bodes well for school board election

Our View

January 19, 2012

For awhile there, we were worried the county would end up with an embarrassing shortage of candidates in this year's school board race.

Silly us. Instead of an embarrassing shortage, the field of candidates offers an embarrassment of riches.

When the deadline passed last week, 15 candidates had filed to run for the three open school board seats this year, including the three incumbents. That's four more than ran in the last board election two years ago, when four seats were open, and it suggests an interest in this contest that is exactly what the board, and the voters, deserve.

The makeup of the school board became an issue last year when County Executive Ken Ulman appointed a commission to find ways to improve the board's lack of diversity, the absence both of minority members and of members from such populations centers as Columbia and the Route 1 corridor. The panel ended up making a half-sensible recommendation, that five of the seven board members be elected by district, thus guaranteeing geographic diversity and increasing the odds of racial and ethnic diversity. But the other part of the panel's recommendation, to have the remaining two members appointed by the county executive, was so wrong-headed and met with such vehement opposition, the whole plan was scuttled and the current system of electing all five members county-wide was kept.

Some might have called the whole exercise a debacle, a waste of time. But optimists hoped the intense focus on the issue might at least have heightened awareness, sowing the seeds for a healthy crop of candidates in 2012. And while those hopes seemed destined to be dashed a week before the Jan. 11 filing deadline, when only four candidates had filed, a flurry of last minute filings changed all that and proved the optimists correct.

Now, we have a field of 15 candidates that includes a good number of minorities (four candidates who are black, for example) and a geographic mix (three candidates from Columbia, one from Elkridge from) that at least offers the chance for a board that more accurately reflects the diverse interests, views and concerns of Howard County.

Whether that happens will be up to the voters, of course, and whether this year's board campaign captures their interest. Voter turnouts in school board elections are notoriously low, even in well-educated Howard County.

What could help in that respect is something that might best be called the Dyer Factor.

Allen Dyer, the pugnacious contrarian who is often at odds with his fellow board members, is one of the three board members up for re-election this year. His proclivity for stirring things up on the board already appears to have boosted interest in the race among candidates. Pat Gordon, who retired from the board just two years ago, is back and running again this year. Asked why, she explained that she wants the board to once again become the smooth-running, contentiousness-free machine it used to be — a clear dig at Dyer, whose feuds with fellow board members have become so intense that they are trying to get him kicked off the board.

Love him or hate him, Dyer's contentiousness has piqued interest in the board. Whether it's enough to convince voters to pay attention to the race this year and then get out and elect the best, most representative board possible remains to be seen. But based on the candidate filings, it's so far so good in that effort.

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