There are some things Tim O'Shea says he cannot imagine, and one of those is any current Montgomery County school board member wrapping his arms around a troubled child and asking if anything can be done to help.
"Currently, school board meetings are conducted in an atmosphere of dislike and distrust," said O'Shea, 47, a school board candidate from Gaithersburg. "It just is not a pleasant experience for the children or even the adult citizens of Montgomery County to go to a typical school board meeting anymore. Members do not treat each other cordially, and there just seems to be more of a concern for the needs of a certain ideology than the needs of certain students."
O'Shea blames that uncaring attitude on the board's four-year long conservative-liberal split. There is no consensus decision-making and often whoever can grab the most votes for a policy wins, regardless of community concern, O'Shea said.
He also blames the board split for the continuing struggle over the closing of Rosemary Hills Elementary, and proposed changes in attendance boundaries for Montgomery Blair High and Eastern Intermediate schools. The board's plans for the three schools were overruled by the Maryland Board of Education. The Montgomery board has filed a court challenge to the state's authority to make such a decision, a move O'Shea criticized as a waste of the county's money.
The Sept. 14 primary will narrow the field for the four open seats from 15 to eight. Like most of other candidates, O'Shea said there is a need to avoid extremes of the present conservative majority that he believes have left students, parents and educators out in the cold when decisions are made.
Last month, O'Shea, Barry Klein of Potomac and Vicki Rafel of Chevy Chase combined their campaigns into a slate that they say will give voters a moderate alternative that they hope will be able to "humanize the board's decision-making."
They said they hope to change the course of the board from one of strict "herd" regulating to one that would leave many policy matters to educators and give the community more input.
"The school board does not need a 'gang of four' or a 'gang of five,' either liberal or conservative, that votes together in conformity with the members' preconceived positions," O'Shea said. "Board members should individually evaluate issues based on what is best for the children and what the communities call for."
O'Shea is a quiet man, born in New York, who has lived in Gaithersburg for nine years. In that time he has served on the Montgomery County Taxi Advisory Committee, as an officer of St. John Neumann Church, as vice chairman of the Montgomery County school system planning committee and as an PTA officer at the schools of his two teen-age daughters. His daughters now attend Montgomery Village Junior High and Gaithersburg High School.
But the experience that O'Shea believes would benefit the school system most is that as a businessman. He is an international trade representative for Westinghouse Electric Corp.
"I think it is essential to have someone on the board who is aware of job trends in the private sector because that is where most of our children will go after high school and maybe college," he said.
O'Shea is also concerned about what he sees as a widening gap between what science and math instuctors can earn teaching compared to what they could earn in private business.
"Increased math and science instruction is not only needed to prepare students for employment, but also to help them function effectively in the more technological society they will live in," O'Shea said. "But there is little inducement for science and math majors to become teachers since they can earn more elsewhere."
He said he opposes the uniform, countywide final exam ordered by the present board, but not yet implemented, because he believes it will place an unfair burden on children skilled in one subject but unable to pass an exam in another. "We need to take more care in helping those types of children along rather than holding them back," he said.
O'Shea also disapproves of the conservative board members' desire to evaluate all schools on the basis of student test performance as a way to pinpoint teachers who are doing the best jobs.
"Test scores tend to go down when moving from affluent school areas to less wealthy communities," he said. "But the board should be more realistic in evaluating this because often the teachers in the lower scoring schools work harder to teach those students."
"Children with special learning problems are a challenge to the school system," he said. "Not all students need special attention, but for those who do, we should make a special effort to give them help."