The Charles County Board of Education elected Margaret Young and Jennifer S. Abell to its top two leadership posts at a meeting Tuesday night in La Plata.
Young, a second-term board member, was elected chairman by a 4 to 3 vote. She replaces Kathy Levanduski as head of the board. Levanduski was not nominated for another term as chairman.
Abell, whose appointment in June to fill a vacancy makes her the newest board member, was chosen to be vice chairman.
Young and Abell were supported by the same four members on the seven-seat board: themselves, Collins A. Bailey and Mark Crawford.
"I saw the time was right to accept a leadership position," Abell said. "While I'm the newest member of the board . . . I'm confident I can perform successfully."
But Levanduski, first elected in 1996 to the board, said she was "concerned with the message" sent by the leadership selections. In recent months, several contentious issues have been decided by the same 4 to 3 voting pattern, and some board members and other observers say this group is coalescing around a more conservative philosophy for the school system.
For example, when compiling the system's legislative requests for this year's General Assembly, the four supported abstinence-focused sex education and opposed a bill endorsed by the county commissioners that would allow the teachers union to charge a service fee to nonmembers.
Criticism was heaped on the board in September when members compiled a list of goals and suggestions that included allowing a religious group to distribute Bibles to students and teaching creationism in high school science classes.
Also, Abell and Young were on a committee that drafted a controversial document, known as the "6000 policy series," to guide curriculum. The document is undergoing revisions and has not been brought to a vote yet, but some believe it undermines the freedom of teachers by dictating what are appropriate materials and assignments. Superintendent James E. Richmond has offered a separate policy document as an alternative.
"Both Ms. Abell and Ms. Young are tied very closely into the policy 6000 document . . . and other goals that have caused such an uproar," Levanduski said. "Certain contingents on the board may appear stronger now than they were before."
Young said her main goal as chairman will be to improve communication between board members and the public and, in the process, put to rest concerns about religious or moral agendas causing major change in the school system.
"People see something on a list and assume we're going to yank out science books, put in Bibles and start teaching creationism," she said. "That has never been discussed by the board, yet that fear is out there in the community. It's never been addressed, and it continues to fester."
She said she plans to meet bimonthly with the county commissioners and the Education Association of Charles County -- the teachers union -- and to hold weekly meetings with Richmond to "keep the lines of communication flowing."
Young said that the board is not divided but diverse and that 4 to 3 votes have been common for years.
"This whole notion that we have had a unified body is preposterous," she said. "Several months ago, there were 4 to 3 votes that may have had a more liberal slant rather than a more conservative slant."
Young, 46, a registered nurse from Waldorf, was first elected to the school board in 1998. She has served as the Parent Teacher Organization president at Berry Elementary School.
Abell, 36, is director of the March of Dimes of Southern Maryland and is a member of the Charles County Chamber of Commerce.