Candidate Odessa M. Shannon says her professional success has equipped her to be a successful member of the Montgomery County school board.
In a recent interview in her office overlooking the Kennedy Center, the Watergate complex and the Potomac, Shannon, a handsome woman who looks younger than her 53 years, briskly listed what she considers her qualifications: "I have management skills. I have fiscal skills. I have negotiating skills. I have analytical skills."
As director of program planning and evaluation for the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, Shannon heads one of the commission's major offices.
Four of the school board's seven at-large, nonpartisan seats will be filled in the November election. They are held by Joseph Barse, Carol Wallace and Eleanor Zappone, and by Elizabeth Spencer, who says she is not a candidate for reelection. A primary on Sept. 14 will narrow the field of candidates to eight, and voters will choose four on Nov. 2.
Until assuming her present position, she was trouble-shooter for the EEOC, covering about 49 offices and 3,000 employes around the country. In addition, she says, she picked up computer programming and systems analysis while working for the U.S. Census Bureau.
She served on a minority relations advisory committee to former Republican Congressman Newton I. Steers Jr. from 1977 to 1979. Shannon, a Democrat, said her service was unrelated to party politics, adding, "I go where I'm needed."
Her professional experience has given her background in "almost every aspect of running a major bureaucracy, which is what the school system is," she said.
"I have all those skills," she continued, "as part of my broad experience. . . . I would be able to relate the fiscal to the program to the relations with other county agencies to the presentation of the budget. . . . I have done all those things . . . plus I've been a teacher."
Shannon is one of a group of candidates who are hoping to topple what they term "the board majority."
Shannon, like some of the other candidates, will not name names when discussing board incumbents whose policies she opposes and will not characterize the direction the present board has taken, although its conservative swing is widely acknowledged.
"Don't ask me to label," she says. But she does criticize the board's school closing decisions, which were appealed to the state school board. State hearing examiners recommended that several of those decisions be reversed.
"If there were someone on the board who might have pointed out the direction those decisions were taking, we might have avoided some problems which exist now," she says.
She also thinks the present board's actions have been "repressive." The board has made a mistake, she believes, by trying to "dictate" day-to-day practices such as how many days a teacher should give homework. The effect has been to "constrict" teacher creativity, she says. Like other challengers, Shannon feels the Montgomery public schools' reputation for quality has been "tarnished. And I'm concerned because I like the school system." Her son, now a college graduate, and her daughter, now studying engineering at Howard University, attended county public schools.
Shannon's primary base of support is in the black and Hispanic communities, but she recently won the nod from the Educational Political Action Committee (EDPAC), a coalition of liberals who hope to stem what they see as the school board's drift to the right. Several minority organizations, including the county's major black fraternities and sororities, have endorsed Shannon as have the Image of Maryland and the League of United Latin American Citizens (LULAC), two Hispanic organizations.
Her admirers all underline Shannon's diplomatic skills.
"She has the ability to clarify things in a nonthreatening way, and yet it is very clear when she finishes," said Roscoe Nix, president of the county NAACP and former school board member. "She has the ability to work with multiple kinds of people. She's not parochial and she's not provincial."
"She's impressive," said Harriet Bernstein, another former board member who served on the EDPAC panel interviewing candidates who sought endorsement. "She understands the dynamics of large, complicated organizations. In my mind that's a gift . . . that's been a quality which has been very missing, in my view, on the incumbent board."
Shannon also has a "knack for explaining things to people in terms they are more willing to accept," Bernstein said. "In other words, she's a diplomat."
Though she has not run for office before, Shannon served on several county boards and commissions during the 1970s. She co-chaired the school board's Minority Relations Monitoring Committee (1975-1978), which recommended a series of "action steps" to ensure that minority students received equal resources and treatment. She also served on a board advisory committee on programs for gifted and talented students. She is now vice chairwoman of the Montgomery County Employment Opportunities Commission, a position she has held since 1979, and served as a commissioner of the Montgomery County Human Relations Commission from 1974 to 1978.
Shannon, a Colesville resident, is a native Washingtonian. She graduated from the old Dunbar High School and earned a bachelor's degree in Spanish from Smith College. After two years of teaching in Baltimore city public schools, she began with the federal government in 1952 as a GS-5, working her way to the Senior Executive Service, an elite corps of 6,000 top government executives, and her current position at EEOC. Her husband is an administrator in the District of Columbia government.
Shannon thinks too little is expected of children in school.
"I want to raise both the floor and the ceiling of expectations of what kids do," she said. She wants to seek help from industry in devising instruction to better prepare youngsters for high technology skills. "Kids who are goal-oriented learn better," she said.
Shannon's campaign manager is Ruby Rubens, another Colesville resident who has been active in Montgomery County community affairs.