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Four Vying for School Board Are Close on Issues

Winners Tuesday Will Help Choose New Superintendent

By Susan Kinzie
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, October 28, 2004; Page SM10

The tone has changed in the St. Mary's Board of Education election since the primary, when several candidates angry about the status quo were defeated.

The talk now is of challenges ahead, not of breakdowns in the schools.

The election Tuesday is an important one because the selection of a new superintendent will be made by the next board. But the four candidates for the board's two open seats agree on so many issues that many voters probably will base their decision more on personal factors than political ones.

Clare Whitbeck, a retiree best known in the county for questioning the status quo, is challenging Cathy Allen, who, as the board's chairman, sets the tone in meetings.

Gary Kessler, who works at Patuxent River Naval Air Station and has volunteered in school activities, is running against Pat Woodburn, a real estate agency employee with a long history of involvement in St. Mary's County public affairs.

They all point to these issues: hiring a superintendent after Patricia M. Richardson retires at the end of the year, finding land for new schools, making sure schools are safe, improving communication with the public and ensuring that state-required tests do not become the only means of evaluating students.

"I really do think we're at a crossroads in the county," Kessler said.

Board member Mary Washington is running for reelection unopposed.

Allen, a former critical-care nurse who lives in Hollywood, has served on the school board since 2000.

Her priorities: "First and foremost finding a strong leader who can take our school system to the next level, ensuring that our students achieve . . . and dealing with the capacity issues we have, and the number of new schools we need to construct."

She said she will make sure "stakeholders" share their ideas about a new superintendent before school board members reach a decision.

She said the board needs to ensure that students can compete with those in other states but also recognize that children learn in different ways. She is particularly concerned about the high school assessment tests that are to be phased in as requirements for graduation.

"The idea that we would take a single test or a series of tests to say you get your diploma -- I think that ignores the differences in students and the fact that we have other measures of accountability. . . . I just worry that for students who are not good test-takers this is going to be an insurmountable challenge," she said.

She said voters have been impressed with her open mind and her ability to work collaboratively with the county commissioners, the school board and the school system.

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