As they prepare to step up their campaigns this fall, the three remaining candidates for the Howard County Board of Education are promising to restore public confidence in the embattled board.
It is a message likely to resonate with voters who have faulted the board for its responses to several recent controversies, including allegations of grade tampering at two high schools. The only incumbent in the race, James P. O'Donnell, withdrew last week. O'Donnell said he was partly responsible for what he sees as a series of missteps by the board.
"Looking at the track record, I'm not happy with it," he said. "I just couldn't see having supporters out there trying to convince people they should vote for me."
In the March 2 primaries, O'Donnell came in third in a field of nine candidates. Mary Kay Sigaty of Wilde Lake, a theater consultant and former County Council candidate, finished first, followed by Diane B. Mikulis of Ellicott City, a self-employed writer. Frank J. Aquino, of Ellicott City and a lawyer, came in fourth.
The three will be vying for the board seats of O'Donnell and Sandra H. French on Nov. 2. French decided not to run again after two terms on the five-member nonpartisan board. Members are elected at large to four-year terms.
Earlier in the summer, O'Donnell said he would scale back his campaign. That decision came after an outcry over the board's decision that there was no basis for the demotions of two top school system administrators accused of grade-changing at Centennial High School in Ellicott City last school year. A heated meeting with parents culminated in some requesting board members' resignations.
Many parents also were upset over delays in the appeal by former Oakland Mills High School athletic director and football coach Ken Hovet, who was placed on administrative leave in January after a grade-changing scandal at that school. Board members said they had no control over the time frame of the appeal and last month reinstated Hovet.
"The community wants the board to do better, and I'm hoping the board in the future will do better," O'Donnell said.
As Sigaty campaigned at the Howard County Fair in early August, she said many parents had expressed anger toward the board.
"I think that you have to work to be absolutely as open as possible," she said. "That's one thing we know about citizens of Howard County. They like to know what's going on."
Still, there are some bright spots. The candidates praised the board's appointment of Superintendent Sydney L. Cousin to a four-year term, saying it was a stabilizing influence. Cousin had been filling the position temporarily after the board decided not to renew then-Superintendent John O'Rourke's contract early this year.
"It's not a distraction now," Aquino said. "Instead of searching for a superintendent, we can focus on efforts with the superintendent."
The candidates said there were several areas in which the board needed to operate more openly and receive more public comment. Sigaty spoke about the capital and operating budgets; Aquino, who has served on the county's boundary line committee, mentioned redistricting. Mikulis said she hoped that with the controversies aside, the school system could maintain its focus on student achievement.
The election of two new members this fall will be just the beginning of changes for the board. The number of members is to grow from five to seven in 2006, a change approved by the Maryland General Assembly last year. In addition, the terms of three current board members will end in 2006. As a result, as many as five new members could be elected in one year.
Mikulis said the board's trials this year serve as a lesson for the future.
"It's made me cautious, I guess," she said. "Being on the board is not just about the hot, exciting issues. It's about hundreds of decisions, some of them on very mundane things."