The biggest names and fiercest competitions draw people to the polls. In the Maryland primary, that means the lingering race between Mitt Romney and Rick Santorum for the GOP presidential election, and a now-heated contest between state Senate Majority Leader Robert J. Garagiola (Montgomery) and financier John Delaney for the Democratic nomination in the 6th Congressional district.

Non-partisan school board races, on the other hand, even in education stronghold Montgomery County, tend to be overlooked by the media and many voters. Tuesday’s primary was no exception.

Bill Dillinger, 73, one of a smattering of people who arrived, along with his dog, at the polling place at Richard Montgomery High School in Rockville Tuesday morning, said it was his “obligation” to vote. But when he got past the congressional and state senate races, he left the bottom of the ballot — where the nine school board candidates reside — blank. “I’m retired. I don’t have any kids left at home,” he said.
“I left it for someone else to decide.”

Unfortunately, there aren’t a lot of informed decision makers around this year. The timing of the primary — the second day of spring break — means that many of those destined to be directly affected by a revamped school board, including parents of school-aged children and school employees, are not here to vote or campaign.

Montgomery’s eight-member Board of Education oversees a high-performing county-wide system that is bigger than some state systems, with 146,500 students and a $2.1 billion budget.

At the Carver Educational Services Center in Rockville, often a busy polling place, only about 90 people had cast ballots by 10 a.m. Many of those who walked past the school board’s meeting room to vote, said they skipped the school board question or took their best guess at a reliable candidate

Nelly LaBennett, a 63-year old former substitute teacher from Rockville said she voted for Lou August in the At-Large race because she thought, based on his name, that he might be female. “I was looking for a lady to vote for,” she said .

August is actually one of three male candidates hoping to unseat Phil Kauffman (also a male).

Mike and Marcia Chervenak of Rockville came out to vote the GOP ballot because they want to see change from the top down. “Hope was over-rated,” said Mike Chervenak, 67, an attorney.

They don’t have children in the schools now, but they voted for Fred Evans to take the seat being left vacant by Laura Berthiaume in District 2 (Rockville and Potomac), after they saw his sign in the front lawn of their primary care physician’s house. He’s a conservative, they reasoned, so Evans probably shares his values.

“I would vote for anyone who’s against a union, especially a public service union, “ said Marcia Chervenak, 64.

They were dismayed to learn that Evans, a 30-year educator in the school system, was actually a long-time union member and one of two candidates in the District 2 race to be endorsed by the teachers union.

The Montgomery County Education Association, which represents about 12,000 teachers, works hard to get its apple ballot to voters unfamiliar with the candidates. Typically, they see a 30 percent drop off in the number of votes for school board candidates - compared to other races, said Tom Israel, executive director of the union.

With spring break, though, they had fewer volunteers than usual to distribute the ballots this year, Israel said.

Miguel Borja, 49, a handyman who lives in Rockville and is a father of three, said he had not received very much mail or information about any of the campaigns. But for school board, he chose a name he’s seen plastered on signs throughout his neighborhood and on the drive into the polling place. “Jeanne? Jeannie?” he said, not sure how to pronounce it but referring to Jeanne Ellinport, one of five candidates for District 2.

It’s not the last chance, though, for voters to weigh in on the school board race this year.

After the primary, the two top vote getters in each race will continue to the general election in November. Board member Christopher S. Barclay (Silver Spring), 4th District also is seeking re-election, but he only has one challenger, Annita Seckinger, so he is not facing a primary.

For more information about the candidates in Montgomery County, visit our Meet the Candidates page.