At a time when the "new majority" runs the Montgomery County School Board and most board aspirants have joined forces in slates or an alliance backed by a political action group, candidate Sharon DiFonzo hopes her independence will lead to victory in November.
"I do not think the people of Montgomery County want political machines controlling the education of their children. . . . I am tired of my children and my neighbors' children being used as pawns in a political game," said the 39-year-old DiFonzo when she kicked off her campaign last month.
Although DiFonzo is less than a household word in Montgomery County politics, she has been active in the public school system since 1969, serving as everything from room mother and library aide to second vice president of the Montgomery County Council of PTAs (MCCPTA). In that respect, DiFonzo sees her candidacy as a logical step.
"I know about this school system," DiFonzo said emphatically. "I know about its goals and shortcomings, its children, and I care deeply about all of those things."
DiFonzo said she was once awed by the school board, but that has changed considerably. "Whether because of experience or because when I stack myself up against this board, I think I can be more representative of the people of this county and less parochial than they have been."
Some current and former colleagues think DiFonzo would add a fresh perspective to the board.
"Sharon's an original," said current MCCPTA president Suzanne Carbone. "She would bring in a sense of independence. She's not allied with any group."
Richard Haller, who served as vice president of the Rock Creek Valley Elementary PTA when DiFonzo was president, remembered her as "very dedicated. She has a lot of strong beliefs. There were many times she stayed well past midnight to make her points known to the board."
DiFonzo said she is running partly because the current board has "created a crisis of confidence" in the school system. She said she is reminded of an old high school cheer when she thinks about the current battles over school closings and the board's decision to contest state board of education rulings in court.
" 'Lean to the left, lean to the right. Stand up, sit down, fight, fight, fight.' That's all this board has been doing. It's time we stopped fighting and get this ship of schools on an even keel," said DiFonzo.
She also accuses the current board of "grievous errors in attitude and style," of being disdainful of citizens and of causing the morale among school system employes to plummet by dictating actions rather than making broad policies to be interpreted and implemented by the administrative staff.
"They have been busy trying to ramrod their personal philosophies through. They have not been ignoring the superintendent Edward Andrews , they have been slapping him in the face," said DiFonzo. "They ignored his advice on the school closings and then they were overturned by the state. . . . The staff's enthusiasm hasn't been stifled. It's been stamped out."
DiFonzo calls her platform the ABCs, for "Accountability, the Budget and Common sense." One thing that DiFonzo would do is set high standards of expectation and performance for teachers. "In this era of shrinking budgets, the school system can only afford to retain the best of teachers and clear the deadwood. We should support and reward the outstanding teachers to make sure that they would not leave us for private industry," she said.
DiFonzo said the school system should greatly enlarge its vocational technical training. "We need to acknowledge the fact that all of the county's 18-year-olds aren't going to college. We need to provide for their futures, too," she said.
Perhaps more than anything else, DiFonzo said, she feels there is a need for board members who will "listen to all of the facts fairly and with an open mind and then arrive at a logical conclusion. . . . We need a board that is prepared to think, . . . not one that goes in with a brute force approach and wreaks havoc in communities."
Using the subject of history as an example, DiFonzo said she would also stress testing and teaching that would give students the underlying reasons for a given event.
"With all the standardized, pasteurized, homogenized testing we have, we are expecting students to learn by rote memorization. They can tell you when the War of 1812 was fought, but if they don't learn the reasons why it was fought they can't begin to gain any principles of life from it."
DiFonzo was born in Reading, Pa., in 1942, and moved with her family to Middletown in southeastern Ohio seven years later. Competitive as a high school gymnast and swimmer, she was also a reporter for the Middletown Journal newspaper and had her own radio talk show at the age of 17.
She attended Ohio State University as an English major for two years before dropping out to get married. Her husband Dan is an electrical engineer at the COMSAT lab in Clarksburg.