What is a man whose favorite pastimes are reading, cooking and gardening seeking on the storm-tossed Montgomery County Board of Education?
An atmosphere of calm, said Robert E. Shoenberg, the dean of undergraduate studies at the University of Maryland-College Park, when he announced his candidacy in April. He wants to help the board "get past the struggles and painful confrontations" that accompanied its school closing decisions during the past year.
Four of the board's nine at-large, nonpartisan seats are up for grabs this November. They are held by Joseph Barse, Carol Wallace and Eleanor Zappone, and by Elizabeth Spencer, who says she is not planning to run for reelection. A primary on Sept. 14 will narrow the field of candidates to eight, and voters will choose the four they prefer on Nov. 2.
Shoenberg, 46, a former English professor, is a quiet academic administrator who says he objects to the way the current board has handled school closings. He sides with current members Blair Ewing and Elizabeth Spencer, he says, and finds little agreement with the board's five more conservative members.
Born in suburban Philadelphia, Shoenberg has lived in Silver Spring for the past 10 years. He is a former president of Saddlebrook Elementary School PTA, but believes his administrative experience "is perhaps the greatest strength I bring to the board." In his present job, he said he has been making decisions with campus-wide scope.
His background in literature (he wrote his PhD on British author Samuel Butler) will stand him in good stead on the Montgomery school board, he said. Last year, he published an essay called "Literature and Academic Administration" in an Association of American Colleges quarterly, Liberal Education. In it, he argued that literature constantly deals with exceptions rather than rules, exploring the circumstances of individual cases. As such, it provides good training in the flexibility needed for academic administration, he wrote.
"The school board can create an atmosphere in which it's okay to encourage judgment," he said, while over-regulation "tends to mean that people don't exercise their judgment. . . . I think the teachers and the administrators feel like they're not being trusted." On this basis, Shoenberg is critical of the school board's recent decision to establish uniform final exams in high schools.
John Howarth, director of the undergraduate honors program at College Park, says Shoenberg, his boss, "doesn't interfere with day-to-day administration. He doesn't feel the need to have his finger on every single detail: he'll get people who can do the job and let them do it."
William L. Thomas Jr., vice chancellor for student affairs at College Park, recently held a gathering at his Silver Spring home so that Shoenberg could meet area residents. Thomas says he agrees with Shoenberg's educational philosophy: "What one might call 'quality education' but with a clear concern for equity and maintaining the public system."
School board member Blair Ewing, who has known Shoenberg and Shoenberg's wife Sue (a member of the county's Human Relations Committee and the Montgomery County Council of PTAs) for five years, describes the candidate as "thoughtful, cautious, but obviously highly intelligent and systematic in his approach to the issues. . . . I'd be delighted to see more of that type on the board. Then I could be more calm and thoughtful myself."
Critical of the board's school-closing decisions, Shoenberg said he agreed "straight down the line" with the state hearing examiner who urged the state board of education to overturn board actions, including decisions to close Rosemary Hills Elementary School and to alter the attendance boundaries for Montgomery Blair High School in Silver Spring.
"I recognize that schools must be closed," he says, "but it's got to be done by a process people perceive is correct and orderly. The board's violation of its own policies has called into question its credibility."
Since then, Shoenberg says, "the board has had the opportunity to acknowledge its mistakes--which it hasn't done." Now, he says, "I think we need a little calm in the situation. We need some effort to find consensus. I think the board needs to again begin to debate issues, to explain the reasons for its decisions."
The school board is responsible not only for the education of the county's children, Shoenberg says, but for the education of the community about the school system. The present board has failed to explain itself to the community, he says. People who make presentations before it, he says, "are thanked and sent away" without discussion. "The board doesn't even carry on much debate among itself," he complains.
Shoenberg says that if he is elected, he will present a written statement on why he voted the way he voted on every controversial issue.
Earlier this week, Shoenberg was hoping for an endorsement from the Educational Political Action Committee, a group of about 400 county residents upset with the conservative majority on the present board. The committee is attempting to create a slate of four candidates who, with Ewing, could form a new, more liberal, majority.
Shoenberg's wife is his campaign coordinator; his 14-year-old daughter Dana and several friends are campaigning for him. His 10-year-old daughter Halley will be stuffing envelopes, he said.