She is the number one booster for the Prince George's schools -- a woman who says she would like to stand on the highest rooftop in the county and shout, "Stay in Prince George's. It's a superneat place with superneat people -- and it's all reflected in the public schools."
She is Jo Ann Bell, chairman of the Prince George's school board -- overseer and champion of the nation's 11th largest school system.
When parents stand up at board meetings to complain, she offers to take them on a tour of the school in question, to show them at first hand what's going on in the classroom.
To assure one angry father that she would not give school officials advance warning of her visit, she challenged him to pick her up at a parking lot one morning, and take her to any school in the county.
"I know we have a great school system," says Bell, nodding her feathered, orange, Bella Abzug-style hat. "Anyone who has visited the schools knows that. We deal with one of the most diverse groups of students in the country and we tell no one, "You're not good enough. We can't help you.'"
Bell has made her message ring clearly, from the school board meeting room in Upper Marlboro to the supermarket in District Heights, where she shops.
"She's a very forceful personality who just grows on you," said one school official. "We're glad she's on our side. She's always out battling the sterotype that the Prince George's school system is rotten, and she does one heck of a job.
Bell's critics are few. One says "the only problem" with the school board chairman is that "she gets a little too emotionally involved in issues sometimes. You know there is such a thing as an overdose of emotion and concern. I think she's sometimes a victim of that very thing."
Most agree with the official who said Bell is "the best thing that's happened to the board in a long time. Jo Ann bangs the gavel and does her stuff."
But there is another side to Jo Ann Bell. She is also a housewife and mother of seven. To her neighbors in District Heights, she is the mother who drove their kids to softball games, who ran the church bazaar, who called school board offices to complain about problems in the schools.
"Most of me and my life are wrapped up in my family and my children," says Bell, 41, whose children are between 10 and 22. When school lets out in the afternoon, her house is besieged by children -- both her own and those of neighbors.
To parents at school board meetings, she is Mrs. Bell, school board chairman. To the children of her neighborhood, she is 'Ma Bell.'
Born to a working-class Italian family in Southeast Washington, Bell until four years ago had no ambition for public office. When a friend asked her to run for school board back in 1975, she says she laughed "uncontrollably."
"I had been a volunteer to the world for as long as I could remember, but I couldn't imagine running for the school board," said Bell, who had worked as a substitute teacher, PTA organizer and voter registrar.
Eventually, Bell's friends persuaded her that she was ready to take the big step. They assured her that neighbors would take care of her kids if she had to go out and make a speech.
"I guess I was among the many people in our community who were very unhappy with the kind of representation we had on the board of education," Bell says. "We were looking for somebody to serve, and the discussion kept coming back to me."
"After a while, I had to ask myself if I just wanted to talk about the problems we had with the school board or whether I wanted to do something about them.
"We were looking for a 'poor' mother-taxpayer on the other end of the telephone line who was complaining all the time, and after a while I realized that was me. I was one of the people who said the school board representing us was too negative," she added.
Bell, who joined the board in 1976, sought to preserve the grassroots base she had established as a volunteer in numerous organizations. Her willingness to talk with constituents at any time or place led to discussions in the aisles of the neighborhood supermarket.
Bell's experience as a substitute teacher proved valuable when the school board reviewed a proposed new grading system for kindergarten. Most parents and board members welcomed the new report card format because it provided parents with additional information -- even noting which colors a child did not know.
But Bell knew kindergarten teachers worked with 60 students in two different classes, and had only limited time to fill out report cards. She prevailed upon fellow board members to adopt a shorter form.
"Everybody brings something to the board," says Bell. "You have to have some people who can apply the academic theories to real-life situations."
As a mother, Bell says she feels she has learned to respect the individuality of children and that flexibility is a key to a good educational program.
"It is easier to come up with one standard way of teaching than it is to take into account the fact that each child has a different set of skills and abilities," she says.
Bell has brought her experience as a housewife and shopper to bear on her school board work.
"I think a lot of women just aren't aware that a lot of things they do to manage a household or run a bazaar can be applied to business," she said. "So, it's not really such a great leap from running a household to running a small business."
She admits, however, that she was overwhelmed when she reviewed her first school board budget.
"I was afraid to vote to spend two and a half million dollars. I thought to myself: 'Now what if you make a mistake here. You will have wasted all of that money -- two and half million dollars.'
"It took me a long time to reconcile myself to the fact that my vote could help to authorize our spending millions of dollars," says Bell. "Now I liken spending money on the budget to spending money in the grocery store. I figure spending several million dollars is like spending $50 at the grocery store. You use the same perspective; it's just a different ballgame." g
Besides being concerned about the image of the schools, Bell is concerned about TRIM, the county's tax-limiting charter amendment. "I think it (TRIM) is a disaster. It encourages a closer evaluation of budgets, but it'll have a devastating effect because inflation will eat up a fixed budget."
One thing Bell won't have to worry about this year is reelection to the school board. She is unopposed for a second four-year term. Using one of her favorite words, she sums up her feelings: "It's a superneat feeling to know that the people of this district approve of the work I've done. There's no greater compliment."