Professor Is Selected For School Board Seat

By William Wan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, November 17, 2005

After more than a month of reviewing applications and holding a series of closed-door interviews, the Charles County Board of Education has chosen a College of Southern Maryland professor to fill a vacant seat.

Turner R. Coggins Jr., who teaches human anatomy and nutrition at the community college, will become the board's newest member after an official vote and swearing-in at the school board meeting Nov. 28, school officials said.

Board Chairman Margaret Young declined to provide details of the board's discussions or the vote tally but said "a majority of the board felt Coggins would be the best for the job." He was chosen from 42 applicants.

Coggins, who lives in La Plata and has two sons and two daughters in the county's public schools, said he applied at the urging of his wife and colleagues and because he felt he had something to contribute.

"You can have a real influence in helping a lot of kids get to where they're trying to go," he said. He will fill the vacancy created this fall by the resignation of Chairman Kathy Levanduski.

Coggins's family has deep roots in education. His father worked for 40 years as a teacher and administrator, including almost two decades in the Charles public schools. His mother was a school librarian and teacher, as were several of his aunts.

"School and church," said his father, Turner Coggins Sr. "Those were the two important things in our family."

The Coggins family moved to Charles from North Carolina when Turner Coggins Jr. was in the third grade. He attended Charles public schools through middle school.

"Charles County was my first time in integrated schools," he said.

During high school, he enrolled in a St. Mary's County military academy. He graduated with a bachelor's degree in biology from Morehouse College in Atlanta, an all-male historically black institution. He earned a master's degree in biology and nutrition from North Carolina Central University and is studying for a doctorate through a distance learning program with Madison University in Mississippi.

"This is a new deal for me," said Coggins, who has never held public office. "I'm not going in there like I have all the answers. I'll be asking questions and getting acclimated."

The Charles school board has been the focus of much attention in recent months. Some teachers and parents criticized the conservative board majority last year after a list of suggestions was made public from a brainstorming exercise that board members had conducted. The list included suggestions to eliminate science books that are "biased toward evolution," to ban books with immoral messages and to offer Bibles to students.

Young said the suggestions were simply ideas that would have had to endure a long vetting process to become policy. But the county teachers union and others in the community pointed to the list as evidence that the board was becoming a moralizing body. Many expressed concern that the process that allowed the board to fill its own vacancies in closed proceedings was likely to lead to a selection that would add to the staunchly conservative majority on the seven-member body.

Coggins said Tuesday that he is just beginning to learn about the issues before the board and the concerns in the community. He said, for example, that several people have asked him about the teaching of "intelligent design" and Darwinism and that he had begun reading up on the issue.

"I have to find out the particulars of the debate before I engage in it," he said.

Coggins -- who is the faculty adviser for Campus Crusade for Christ, a campus ministry -- said he wasn't sure what role his faith would play in his decisions on the board.

"I'll say this: I was a believer before I applied to the board, so it's not like that's going to change just because I was chosen on the board," he said. "People have certain beliefs in values and morals. I'm trying to live those things out. You try to lead by your actions as best you can.

"You are who you are, in and out of season," he added, "Hopefully whatever it is that I am will have some merit to the board."

Coggins's selection ends several weeks of public appeals for the board to make its process open. Last week, state delegates, county commissioners and the teachers union discussed a proposal that would change the process.

"This need to keep it closed makes no sense," said Karen Fennell, who was the last applicant to be interviewed Monday night. "Anyone afraid of having their name out there, why would they want to be on the school board in the first place. It's a public position. Why do things in secret?"

Young and other board members had defended the practice, saying a public process would deter some candidates from applying because of attention from the news media and public scrutiny.

Another candidate, Elaine S. Belson, said she was grateful for the privacy. "On a personal level, I was really happy to stay out of the fray of all the public discourse," said Belson, a clinical social worker. "But it clearly seems that some of this concern about the process being public grew out of a lack of trust in the board among the community. There's a need for this board to build some consensus in the community."

The interviews and deliberations took about 10 hours over the course of four days. All but one of the 42 candidates appeared before the board. Fennel and Belson, two candidates contacted by The Washington Post, described the process because they said the board had told all applicants that they could talk to the media.

Before every interview, the board read a prepared statement and told the candidate that there would be no questions during the interview -- the candidate would simply have 10 minutes to explain why he or she should be chosen. After the 10 minutes, a board member read a second prepared statement saying the candidate could leave.

© 2005 The Washington Post Company