Ober, Wagner 'undecided' about running for re-election? Say it ain't so

October 26, 2003|by TIM ROWLAND

Recently queried, school board members Roxanne Ober and Bernadette Wagner said they were "undecided" whether they would seek re-election.

Since they're having trouble, let me decide for them: Run.

Run, win, then leave us alone. Stop already with the form letters, the brochures and PR packets. Please, lose the inferiority complex. Really, it's OK - we believe you, you've done good. So stop it, and get back to the business of making some math teachers' lives miserable for me. Thank you. Whew.

And no, I'm not being patronizing. In fact, if you are only going to re-elect two incumbent office-holders in all of Washington County, the case could be made that Ober and Wagner would be the two best choices.

Since the pair took office in 2000, the county's dropout rate has been cut in half, SAT scores have risen to all-time highs and starting teacher salaries have become competitive state- and region-wide. What other elected panel has done so much so fast, perhaps in the entire history of Washington County?


Certainly the entire school board deserves credit, as does a strong superintendent. But Ober-Wagner is the heart of it, almost to the degree where their names have become synonymous with Washington County education.

They ran as a team three years ago with the unheard of campaign approach of actually visiting every county school - and although they stress their individualities, having one without the other would be as incongruous as if "Ben and Jerry's" would rename their ice cream "Ben's."

Their first year in office was rough. Partially that was attributable to learning the ropes, but mainly it stemmed from the messy but necessary business of removing a superintendent who was clearly not working out for Washington County.

It took the new board a while to learn about open government, and that spending tax money in secret is a bad thing. It tackled redistricting and consolidation right out of the chute with less than sparking results, but in retrospect those bites were bigger than what any new board should be expected to gracefully chew.

The turnaround began with the hiring of Superintendent Betty Morgan, a woman whose dial of methodology is perpetually set to "chainsaw."

The first thing Morgan did was take the heat and pressure off the new board's shoulders, which at the time it very much needed. Those in the community who view school boards with suspicion had found their new villain, a woman (egads) from New York via Baltimore (double egads) whose first act was to hire outsiders, paying them big money to be her top lieutenants.

Well. You might as well wave an ACLU member in front of Gordon Liddy. From then on, it was Morgan and her "hired goons" who were the objects of derision, not the individual board members.

This has allowed the board time to adopt an understated but firm dignity, the type not seen since the salad days of Marie Byers - a woman whose motherly smile belied the fact that you always had the sense that if you got out of line she was ready to smack your knuckles with a steel ruler.

It's been a while now since the board tried to hire a consultant in secret or got itself into a dizzying bind over the height of a retaining wall at a proposed department store.

Instead, with the spotlight removed, the board has taken off, with new magnat schools, new programs, better and better test scores. True, the teachers have been yanked around a bit and are not universally happy, but if results are any indication they are still teaching and teaching well.

Kids have more opportunities today, and more challenges and more potential once they leave the county school system.

Historically, land set aside in Washington County for high-tech enterprises has remained empty, for lack of a competitively educated workforce. For the first time, you start to get the sense that this could change over the next decade.

Every place you turn in the school system there is action and measurable improvement. Contrast this with other local governments, which are either spending appreciable money and energy suing each other, or putting off decisions on zoning, putting off decisions on contaminated well water, putting off decisions on fire and rescue funding, or killing outright funding plans for school construction.

Whether you like what Morgan and the elected school board are doing or not, at least you have to admire the "doing" part. They may make some mistakes, but at least problems will not go unsolved for lack of trying. They are not ducking issues or assigning every problem to the cowardly ash heap of "further study." That's quite a change from the way things are normally done around here, so it is of little wonder some are having trouble adjusting.

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