The three candidates for the Howard County Board of Education have been knocking on doors, handing out literature and attending candidates forums -- at least three this week alone -- as the race enters its final weeks.
"As long as I keep working hard . . . I'll know I've done everything I can do. But I'm not in this to lose," said Frank Aquino, a lawyer from Ellicott City who is running in the countywide, nonpartisan race. The other candidates are Diane Mikulis, a freelance writer from Ellicott City, and Mary Kay Sigaty, a theater consultant from Columbia.
The top two vote-getters Nov. 2 will fill the seats of member Sandra H. French and Vice Chairman James O'Donnell, whose terms on the five-person school board end this year. O'Donnell was running for reelection but withdrew his bid during the summer, saying he was partly responsible for several controversial decisions the board had made over the past year.
During a meeting at Fulton Elementary School on Monday, some parents said they did not see many differences among the three candidates. Aquino and Mikulis have children in the school system and touted their business backgrounds. One of Sigaty's daughters graduated from Wilde Lake High School in the spring.
"There's not much differentiation," said Ellen Makar, president of Fulton's PTA. "It's a win-win situation. Any one of these is really going to have a good motivation, a good relationship with the community."
Growth and redistricting dominated the meeting. Both are especially hot topics with voters this year as parents learn who will attend Marriott's Ridge, the county's 12th high school, which is scheduled to open in August. Redistricting could affect every high school in the county as hundreds of students shuffle from crowded schools to those with empty seats.
A former candidate for County Council, Sigaty spoke extensively about development and the work of the Howard County Planning Board. All three candidates said they would push to minimize school boundary line changes. But they agreed the pace of development in Howard makes at least some redistricting inevitable.
The candidates also said the county's adequate public facilities ordinance, which was created to control growth, has not worked as intended. Sigaty said the County Council is ultimately responsible for approving development in Howard. Mikulis said the school board played a role as well, providing council members with enrollment projections that help determine which regions are open for building. Those numbers have been notoriously inaccurate, she said.
The candidates varied on ways to attract and retain quality teachers. This is the final year of a three-year contract with the teachers union. School and union officials are scheduled to begin negotiating a new contract this winter.
Sigaty, a former teacher, said she would use innovative methods to compensate good teachers. For example, they could be rewarded with time to go on sabbatical or to plan lessons, she said.
Aquino said he would consider paying more to teachers who work in low-performing schools. And Mikulis said she favors more money for those who teach in-demand subjects, such as special education and computer science. Both said they also would consider the controversial practice of giving teachers salary increases based on merit.
"We need to put a lot of stuff on the table," Mikulis said.
The candidates apparently differ in their ability to raise money. Although the deadline for reporting donations is next week, Mikulis said she has raised an estimated $10,000, Sigaty said she has about $6,000, and Aquino reported about $4,500.
In the March 2 primary, voters chose four people to compete in the general election from a field of nine candidates. Sigaty received the most votes, followed by Mikulis, O'Donnell and Aquino. The winners Nov. 2 will serve four-year terms.
The election marks just the beginning of changes for the school board. The terms of three current members will expire in 2006. That year, two seats will be added to the board, raising the number of members to seven.