The months spent campaigning ended last week for two candidates elected to the Howard County Board of Education, but the work, they say, is just beginning.
Member-elect Diane Mikulis, a freelance writer from Ellicott City, said she has begun wading through "two feet of paperwork" on board policies and procedures. Her e-mail is already piling up.
Mary Kay Sigaty, a theater consultant from Columbia who was elected to the other seat, said that being a school board member "takes every waking minute, if you allow it to do so."
"I'm prepared to give this position as much time as it takes," Sigaty said.
Mikulis and Sigaty will take office Dec. 6 to fill the seats of outgoing members Sandra H. French and James O'Donnell. Each will serve four-year terms on the five-member, nonpartisan board.
Mikulis received 39 percent of the vote in the three-way election Nov. 2. Sigaty won a narrow victory over Ellicott City lawyer Frank Aquino with 31 percent of the vote to his 29 percent. About 8,000 absentee ballots, which officials finished counting late last week, did not affect the outcome of the race.
"In my head, I knew the absentee ballots were likely to fall out the way the general election did," Sigaty said. Still, she said, she was worried.
Her supporters, however, did not seem concerned about the absentee ballots. As Sigaty bought a cup of coffee at a Columbia shop late last week, two people offered their congratulations and shook her hand.
Mikulis said she has had little spare time since the election, as she tries to balance the demands of work and family -- she has three children in Howard schools -- with her new role. Early this week, she answered questions from a reporter while doing laundry after chaperoning a weekend backpacking trip for one of her children.
"It's going to be difficult, I know that," she said. "It's always been a juggling act for our family. . . . We're just going to have to take it week by week."
Mikulis and Sigaty said they will spend the next few weeks familiarizing themselves with board policies and procedures and the host of mundane issues, such as student appeals and integrated pest management, that never cropped up during the campaign.
Board member Patricia S. Gordon said that after Thanksgiving she plans to give the new members a crash course on the inner workings of the school system. One of the biggest challenges she faced when she was elected to the board in 2000 was learning to navigate the school system's central office, Gordon said.
"There are so many gaps that have to be filled in," she said.
Both new members have some experience dealing with school staff and current board members. Mikulis said she worked with board Chairman Courtney Watson on securing funding for the county's 12th high school, Marriott's Ridge.
"I think I see the board as being very proactive. I don't think we're going to just sit back and wait for problems to occur," Mikulis said.
Both new members served on a countywide committee that studied school equity. Sigaty said she worked with Superintendent Sydney L. Cousin several years ago on the school system's budget.
"I personally like him," Sigaty said. "What I'm hearing in my local schools is that people are happy he's there. They feel supported."
Sigaty said that improving communication between the board and the public is a priority for her first year in office. Several controversial board decisions last year riled parents, and Sigaty said she hopes to restore trust.
Mikulis said her priority is scrutinizing the school system's operating budget. She said she wants to see more information on line items and ensure that programs are effective.
Gordon said one of the first things she realized after taking office was that accomplishing her goals would take longer than expected. Some projects, such as assigning board members to certain high schools and their feeder schools, have come to fruition. Others, such as minimizing redistricting and bringing foreign language instruction to elementary schools, might never be accomplished.
"My advice [to the new members] is to really wait a while and get the lay of the land," Gordon said. "I have learned that it really takes five people."