john-john williams article "Board hopefuls declare strengths"
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Board hopefuls declare strengthsCandidates describe experience and vision they would bring to county school systemSun reporterOctober 22, 2006
Ask any of the 10 Board of Education candidates what the pressing issues are and most agree on redistricting, student performance and aging schools.
But to solve those and other problems, each candidate will bring a different approach based on his of her experience, which varies with age, occupation and previous involvement with school-related issues.
No matter who is elected Nov. 7, one thing is for sure: It will be a drastically different board as new members step in and the panel increases from five to seven members. Diane Mikulis is the only one guaranteed to return to the board. The current vice chairman's term ends in 2008.
Members Joshua Kaufman and Patricia S. Gordon are among the candidates battling for five positions. Member Mary Kay Sigaty, whose term expires in 2008, is running for the County Council in District 4 and plans to leave her board seat if she wins. And member Courtney Watson, who is running for the County Council in District 1, will leave her position when her term expires this year.
The group of board hopefuls started at 16. Two candidates dropped out, and four others were eliminated in the Sept. 12 primary. After months of campaigning, the candidates were asked by The Sun what distinguished them from their opponents.Frank AquinoFrank Aquino, 48, an attorney and general counsel for an environmental consulting and engineering company, said his work experience, school system involvement and experience as a parent distinguish him.
"I have experience on both the local school level and countywide," Aquino said. "I've been on the boundary line committee twice and the operating budget review committee three times. I think I understand the education concerns of the Howard County community.
"As a result of the all of my experience, I will hit the ground running," Aquino said. "I don't think the learning curve will be that great for me."
Aquino, the top vote-getter in the primary, called for and subsequently prompted the school system to recently adopt a civility policy.
"I saw the need for setting the bar for intercommunication among all of the stakeholders," Aquino said.
Aquino, whose three children attend county schools, said he supports board members' maintaining regular office hours in order to meet with residents.
"I see myself as a consensus builder who is able to bring those skills to the board," he said. "I want to make sure the board works efficiently and effectively."Larry CohenLarry Cohen, 56, said his experience as a principal, assistant principal, administrative liaison, pupil personnel worker and teacher sets him apart.
"I think I have a sense of knowledge about what it takes to run an efficient school system," said Cohen, who is retired. "Everybody who is running for the school board cares about the school system. But I've been part of the school system and I have a knowledge of what is important to maintain the school system and take it to the next level."
Cohen said the most important issue facing the system is its ability to provide the resources necessary to enable all students to pass the High School Assessments and thereby eliminate the achievement gaps among student groups.
"We have an obligation to do best for all kids," Cohen said. "We are a public service. We provide opportunity for kids to be successful with the different skills and talents that they have. We are not a product, and we are not an assembly line. We have to look at each kid as an individual."Allen DyerAllen Dyer, 59, a computer consultant and lawyer, has made his presence felt during the campaign.
Most recently, Dyer challenged the decision by the current board to move toward a committee system. Dyer thinks the committee system violates the Open Meetings Act.
In November 2000, Dyer sued the Board of Education in Circuit Court for what he said were multiple violations of the state's Open Meetings Act. As a result, legislation was introduced and passed to strengthen enforcement of the law.
Dyer also represented four residents questioning potential water contamination and other environmental concerns in connection with a 400-seat addition at Glenelg High School. An administrative judge ruled against Dyer's clients in that case.
"I believe in a transparent system that permits all shareholders to participate in the development of the system," Dyer said.
Dyer said he also believes in vocational education at local schools; providing more information technology training and support; establishing a feeder-school system; and providing public information online that is supported by the Open Meetings Act.
Dyer and fellow candidate Di Zou have formed an alliance. Dyer said they share similar views and concerns.
"We're independent and we have new ideas," Dyer said. "We're not plain vanilla."Sandra FrenchSandra H. French, 62, a retired educator, former chairman of the school board and now a substitute teacher in county secondary schools, said she has the practical experience necessary to serve.
"I know what can be done to avoid the pitfalls. That is valuable," French said. "I know that people talk about their business background. But I know how to lobby in Annapolis. I've achieved changes in state law. What have they done about legislation and policy?"
French, who said that strong academic performance, especially at the middle-school level, is one of the biggest issues facing the school system, added that she spends significant time in the classroom.
"I observe the classes and I listen to the teachers," French said. "I have a unique ability to translate how policy either negatively or positively can support the teachers in the classroom."Ellen Flynn GilesEllen Flynn Giles, 55, a senior editor and analyst with Platts, a division of McGraw-Hill Co., has been a fixture in school PTAs and systemwide committees for 22 years.
"I have the analyst's perspective in putting together the big picture but can still pay attention to the details," said Giles, a former chairwoman of the Citizens Advisory Committee to the school system.
Meeting requirements for the academic achievement of every student school is the most important issue facing the system, Giles said.
"Instruction is what we are suppose to do," she said. "That is our primary function. We must give [students and teachers] the resources so they get there."Patricia S. GordonPatricia S. Gordon, 82, a school board member, former vice chairman of the board and a retired elementary school principal, said her work on the board sets her apart from other candidates.
"During the time that I have been on the board, we have gone through a lot of changes," said Gordon, who completes a six-year term this year. "And we have had many difficult decisions to make. One was not to renew the contract of the previous superintendent," John R. O'Rourke.
Student achievement - particularly among black males - concerns Gordon, as does providing an adequate number of guidance counselors.
"I think that in these difficult times we need to train person or persons in each school who can see the warning signals of aberrant behavior on the part of the student," Gordon said.Joshua KaufmanJoshua Kaufman, 35, the deputy director of strategic planning in the Office of Democracy and Governance at USAID and current chairman of the school board, said voters should judge him on whether he has improved the system since he was appointed to the board in 2003.
"My record indicates that I have," said Kaufman. "The school system has a better foundation - not just with academics but on the financial side of things."
Kaufman said the board has to be focused on expanding its most successful programs aimed at ensuring that schools meet the targets of No Child Left Behind, especially black, Hispanic and special education students, and students who are learning the English language.
"The immediate priority has to be giving students tools to pass the high school assessments," Kaufman said.
Maintaining and improving older schools in the face of a shrinking share of the capital budget also tops Kaufman's concerns.Roger J. LernerRoger J. Lerner, 52, a business lawyer, business owner and adviser, said he has consistently raised issues that concern residents.
"Many other candidates are focused on winning," Lerner said. "While I would like to win so I could serve and make this a much better school system, ultimately the most important thing is getting the school system to look squarely at the problems facing them, and not be afraid to address them."
Redistricting and underperforming students are major issues facing the system, Lerner said.
He favors dividing the county into permanent subdistricts, similar to high school feeder networks. He would then add capacity as needed within those subdistricts.
"I want to get real value for the education dollar, and make the school board truly responsible to the community," Lerner said.Janet SiddiquiJanet Siddiqui, 45, a pediatrician, believes her work background distinguishes her from her opponents.
"I understand the needs of a whole child, both the physical and the cognitive," she said. "I think I can bring a perspective that hasn't been there in the past."
Siddiqui wants to find ways to engage each student through enrichment programs.
"We need to look at each child as an individual," Siddiqui said. "Each child learns as an individual and learns in different ways. We need to focus on those traits and bring those out."
Extracurricular programs and guidance, especially during the middle-school years, are essential for children to excel, Siddiqui said.
"The middle-school years are a time when there are a lot of changes, physically and psychologically," Siddiqui said. "We can provide more guidance as they transition to the high school years."Di ZouDi Zou, 18, a freshman at the University of Maryland, College Park and a graduate of Glenelg High School, is trying to make history by becoming the youngest member on the board.
"I'm young; I know the issues," Zou said. "I know how the students feel."
Zou favors reform of standardized tests, vocational education and an effective technological infrastructure.
Zou, who approached Dyer and formed an alliance shortly after the September primary election, said the pairing has been beneficial.
"It's pretty good," he said. "[But] it's hard to make our schedules match."
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