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Sitting On Board Of Education Is No Picnic

John W. Ashbury

June 05, 2002

We can only hope that the woodwork is full. At present there are so few candidates for significant and major offices in September's primary and November's general election that it is scary.

The Gazette headlined a story on its front page last Thursday about the lack of candidates for the Frederick County Board of Education. Seems that none, or perhaps only two, of those who ran in 2000 will put their names forward this fall.

That is not really surprising. The filing deadline in 2000 was before the end of 1999. For the six who were successful in the March 2000 primary, it meant a campaign that lasted more than 10 months, and for some as long as a year. It was grueling - to say the least. The candidate forums separated the wheat from the chaff, but that made little difference to the voters, who elected a staunch conservative, an espoused liberal, and the sitting president of the Board of Education.

As a personal aside, it was gratifying to learn after the election that two people, heavily involved in the forums for the BOE candidates, cast their ballots in my direction because they saw a willingness to change positions on major issues when additional information became available.

A seat on the Board of Education is not for anyone who has a special agenda, one that particularly does not address the needs of the many as opposed to those of the few. Oh, yes, the few have mandates that protect them from neglect in favor of the many. But generally, BOE members cannot impose their political or social will on the 38,000 students in Frederick County Public Schools (FCPS).

The time consumption is enormous. Jean Smith, a current BOE member who will seek an elected seat, devotes so much to the school system that her family must be suffering. Fortunately, her children are grown, and she always seems to find time for her grandchildren.

One of those elected in 2000, on the other hand, has a job in the private sector which also demands a great deal of time. Therefore, when there is a meeting that must be attended on days of the week other than Wednesdays, FCPS sets up a video conference call to accommodate this member. This isn't really fair to the other members who actually take time off from their outside employment to attend those sessions.

But the job of a Board of Education member is far more intense that just showing up for meetings. There are mountains of support materials that must be read and absorbed. There are the meetings with individual staff members that must be conducted to get a clear understanding of particular issues. And one must learn to differentiate between those on the staff who will give you proper and clear information from those who will only provide the data which supports the superintendent's position.

And that is difficult. Most of the senior staff works at the pleasure of the superintendent, not for the Board of Education. Yes, disciplined staffers can appeal, in most cases, to the BOE. But, as we have seen all too often, what the superintendent wants, the superintendent gets, no matter what the BOE thinks is called for and proper.

Another issue which raises its ugly head every year is the budget. The BOE cannot raise funds itself. It must rely on the federal, state and county governments for its funding. And recent events concerning the county commissioners' understanding of the way the BOE staff conducts itself could make for a testy time of it for the foreseeable future.

The educrats have a reputation in some quarters of hiding information, not only from the public, but from the BOE itself. It is not a good way to run a railroad, much less a school system with a budget which will exceed $300 million in the coming year.

The new members of the BOE have been bogged down in the minutia of the school system operations rather than focusing on the real heart of their job - educating our children. No matter what the superintendent, his staff or the BOE members say, the public perception is that too many of our children are leaving our school system without a quality education. Too many can't read, too many need a calculator to do basic math. And don't even ask about history. Too many can't tell you who the first president of The United States was or in what century he lived.

So, it really isn't a wonder why only one candidate has officially filed. The job is hard, much more so than the average citizen thinks. The hours are killing. The money and benefits are outrageously low when assessed against the commitment. However, there are non-monetary rewards that warm the heart and make one appreciate others all the more.

And we haven't even mentioned redistricting yet. This is perhaps the most painful process of all. And no educrat or superintendent, or BOE member comes out a winner in that process. Someone will always be angry no matter what decision is made.

And the state has dumped a huge problem into the lap of the next BOE. How is Frederick County going to provide more than 1,200 more seats in its elementary schools to accommodate all-day kindergarten.

And should we get fanatics on our Board of Education, we will be in real trouble.

There is no envy here of those who will serve on the Board of Education in the future.

Only prayers!!!!!

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