During the recent Howard County school board election forum, one candidate implored the audience, "Don't give the advantage of incumbency to people. Vote for the best."
The candidate was Allen Dyer, one of three incumbents among a field of 14 candidates vying for three seats.
Often, incumbency is seen as an advantage, and in Howard County school board elections, name recognition is key.
But this year's three incumbents — Dyer, Ellen Flynn Giles and Janet Siddiqui — are seeking re-election as the school board has been much maligned for its infighting and its recent adoption of changes to the school system that have proven unpopular with some Howard citizens.
In 2010, incumbents Frank Aquino and Sandra French ran successful campaigns despite cries from some citizens and candidates for changes in board membership. The two finished first and second, respectively, among eight general election candidates; French's 48,202 votes were nearly 17,000 more than the third-place finisher, newcomer Brian Meshkin.
Dyer, who was elected in 2008, is running for re-election for the first time. Siddiqui was appointed in 2006 to fill an outgoing board member's term and won re-election in 2008. Giles was initially elected to a two-year term in 2006, when the board expanded from five members to seven. Her shortened term was to create staggered terms and avoid high turnover during the following elections. Giles was re-elected in 2008.
Dyer, Giles and Siddiqui say that there are pluses and minuses to being an incumbent, particularly in a field with 14 candidates and little time to campaign before next month's primary.
"The pluses are that you have name recognition and you have a record of your achievements," said Siddiqui. "The minuses are that sometimes you have a better understanding of the little things that go on in the schools. We have more access to all the schools in the county, where some candidates for the board of education may only know the schools in their area."
Said Giles of incumbency: "You aren't just an observer. You need to understand why we are where we are and what the challenges are. Also I suppose there is the fact that people do know who you are and are going to hold you accountable. I think that being held accountable is the right thing."
Many of the other school board candidates have questioned the board's accountability and repeated those concerns during Monday's League of Women Voters forum.
Due to the sizable field, the forum was divided into two separate groupings: The first group to speak before the audience was Robert Ballinger, Jim Adams, Corey Andrews, David Gertler, Owen Hanratty, Mary Jo Neil and Siddiqui.
"We need to change this board that right now is dysfunctional. We need to look at a board whose main priority is not removing a board member," said Ballinger, referring to the school board's vote last year to ask the state Board of Education to remove Dyer, accusing him of, among other things, breaching confidentiality requirements. The matter is currently before an administrative law judge.
Ballinger also brought up Dyer's filing of several lawsuits against the board while he has served on it. "We need to make sure that our dysfunctional board does not see the only option of discourse is to sue and cost county residents thousands of dollars in lawsuits that are frivolous," Ballinger said.
Asked later about Ballinger's comments, Siddiqui said, "For myself, I can't speak for other board members, but I've maintained my integrity throughout my membership for the last five years. We did use what's available through the state board to address the issues of Mr. Dyer. That will be forthcoming over the next few months in terms of how that proceeds."
Dyer and Giles were part of the second grouping of candidates, which also included Leslie Kornreich, Olga Butler, Ann De Lacy, Jackie Scott and Patricia Gordon. During the panel discussion, Dyer moved to set himself apart not only from the incumbents but from a group of four members — French, Aquino, Siddiqui and Giles — who he says forms a voting bloc on most matters before the board.
"The current board needs some new blood, and I'm hopeful that there will be at least two new board members coming on board," said Dyer, who paused after some members of the audience laughed and added, "Could be three, you never know."
"I look forward to working with two new board members to create a new board majority," Dyer added. Afterward he said that because incumbents tend to have a greater chance at winning, he sought to help to give the school board challengers "an equal chance."
"What I was asking people to do," Dyer said, "is to look at the independent thinkers out there that are coming at the same old problems with a little different perspective and with fresh energy."
Asked afterward about Dyer's comments on the board majority, Giles said, "That's what a board is, and once a decision is made it is the decision of the board. You must support it.
"That doesn't mean you can't look at ways to improve the outcome and look at ways in which additional measures can be applied, but we act only as a public body," Giles said. "It's only as a group that we make change."
The candidates tackled such questions as student accountability, safety, technology and fiscal responsibility. Residents who attended the forum said that the concerns about the board will influence voting.
"I'm leaving here knowing who I am definitely not voting for. I'm a little less clear on who I am voting for," said Laura Munns of
Jenise Dunn of Ellicott City said she and others left the forum frustrated that more issues, such as redistricting, were not directly discussed. She added that she's narrowed her candidates list down to five, and said that not only will there be a push for a new board makeup during this year's election cycle but for the next cycle as well.
"It's time for a change in our board, and we've got some good candidates that we heard from" during the forum, Dunn said. "I was pretty excited about a few of them. There are several I know I won't be voting for, and a handful I was pleased with."