Jobs may be top issue in November

September 17, 2006|by BOB MAGINNIS

Every month I meet with a group of local citizens who advise me on editorial page matters. For more than five years we've been coming together for these two-hour meetings. The group's members offer constructive criticism, some of which stings. But the best thing I get is different perspectives on what is happening.

With that in mind - and because our last meeting fell the day after Maryland's Sept. 12 primary - I asked members to tell me which issues I and the editorial page staff should concentrate in in the general election campaign.

Many things were said during those two hours, but the one that jumped out concerned the primary victory of School Board candidate William Staley.

Staley, 61, is a former welding teacher with the Washington County Public Schools. When he announced his latest candidacy - he ran unsuccessfully in 2004 - he said he was dissatisfied with the direction of the Washington Coun ty school system.


Skilled trades such as plumbing, welding and carpentry should be taught, Staley said, because jobs are available and not every student will go to college.

Almost all of advisory committee members agreed with that point of view. And, nearly all shared a story of some young person, a son or daughter perhaps, who had succeeded even though "college wasn't for them."

Staley might not have much chance of getting a hearing for his point of view except that Republican John Barr is likely to be elected as Washington County Commissioner in November.

Barr is the owner of Ellsworth Electric and a supporter of the ABC Contractors' apprentice-training program. Known for his involvement in a variety of charitable causes, he was not only the top vote-getter among Republicans, but he also raised the most money.

If that trend continues, Barr could be the top vote-getter in November, which would mean that more likely than not, he would replace outgoing Commissioner Greg Snook as president of the board.

That would give him a powerful voice in bringing more trade courses to the Washington County Technical High School.

School officials have told me that these courses are gravitating toward community colleges because in many cases, high-school pupils don't want to leave their "home schools."

School officials say that later on, when graduates realize that they need more than a high-school diploma to earn enough to feed a family, they're ready for training in the trades.

Not all of the trades have been removed from the technical high school. The school's Web page lists carpentry, auto mechanics, auto body repair and electrical construction as part of the course list.

But if you want welding instruction, you must go to Hagerstown Community College, where the 2005-06 catalog lists it along with plumbing and pipefitting and introduction to HVAC (heating ventilation and air-conditioning.)

The concern I heard from the advisory committee members was twofold. Not everyone learns in the same way. One member's child who hated the college professor-lectures-students format was able to learn what he needed just by reading manuals.

And, they said, since the area seems to be generating mostly those jobs related to warehousing and distribution, college-bound youth are unlikely to find jobs here once they finish their educations.

To some extent, it's a chicken-and-egg situation: If a certain percentage of Washington County's population doesn't have four-year degrees, many companies will write off the area. But if the jobs aren't here, college-educated youth will go elsewhere.

There are other issues, yes, but based on what I heard Wednesday, candidates who don't have a plan to help local residents get better jobs might not be taken seriously by the voters.

Primary surprises?

For me, there were a couple, including the primary victor of Cpl. Rich Poffenberger, soon to retire from the Maryland State Police after 28 years' service. Poffenberger topped the field in the Republican primary for Washington County Sheriff, even though his rivals seemed to have more experience with the administrative end of law enforcement.

But the county's last two sheriff's have been retired state police officers and Poffenberger's father, with the MSP for 37 years, was well-liked and well-known, not only for his police work, but as a private businessman.

His son faces Democrat Doug Mullendore, Sheriff Charles Mades' second-in-command, who Mades has endorsed.

The other surprise, although not as great, was the primary loss of Commissioner Dori Nipps. Upon reflection, it was likely one of the incumbents was going to pay the price for the rural rezoning vote and Nipps had irked groups on other issues as well.

In July 2005, Nipps voted to allow the Beaver Creek Quarry to expand, despite neighbors' opposition. She gave short shrift to the idea of School Board elected by districts, upsetting south county residents who felt their voices weren't being heard.

Some members of the North Hagerstown High School stadium group were irked because Nipps raised doubts about artificial turf there, then decided it might be a good thing for the field at Marty Snook Park.

And when when it was announced that William Christoffel would retire as Washington County Health Officer after state officials investigated his behavior toward women, Nipps said "It's a very sad situation."

As some women said to me afterward, "Sad for whom?"

The advisory committee also mulled over why turnout was still so low, when The Herald-Mail, Antietam Cable, the League of Women Voters and Hagerstown Community College went all out to provide coverage.

My own feeling is that it may not be enough to promote involvement during election years.

It may require a constant effort, at least until the current culture of apathy is replaced with something better.

Bob Maginnis is editorial page editor of The Herald-Mail newspapers.

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