School board seeks to open public dialogue

The search for a new superintendent of schools was among topics when four members of the Wicomico County Board of Education spoke at the Chamber of Commerce’s Advocacy Round Table Meeting last week.

Don Fitzgerald, school board president, said somebody could be hired by April to replace the retiring Dr. John Fredericksen.

The second round of candidate interviews is scheduled for this week. School board members will meet with the three finalists before reaching a decision.

Next month, 12 students will have lunch with each candidate, Ferguson said. There will be focus groups for businesses, community, the media, retirees, the Central Office, teachers and students.

Also attending were members Ron Willey, Kim Hudson and John Palmer.  Not in attendance were Dr. Tyrone Chase, Dr. Carolyn Elmore and Joseph Ollinger.

Robby Sheehan, deputy chief of staff at Salisbury University, conducted the public forum. Topics also included an elected vs. an appointed school board and discipline in schools.

Willey, a retired principal and teacher serving his ninth year, said despite his many years in education, he had no real insight into how the board makes decisions until he was appointed.

“We serve as the chief sounding board for the superintendent, but the final decision is his, or hers. We’ve been through some of the worst economic times I can remember in our history and the lack of funding has affected programs for students,” he said.

Poor behavior and need for discipline  “has almost reached a peak this year,” he said.

Fitzgerald, retired from DuPont Co. after 37 years, said good behavior is his highest priority. Nobody should be afraid to go to school, whether it’s a teacher, staff member or student, he said.

“We’re committed. I take it personally. When people come up to me and say, ‘What’s going on in the schools?’ I take it personally. The superintendent has a plan. I will tell you if that plan doesn’t work, he will have another plan because I have heard the public loud and clear,” he said.

Fitzgerald said he became interested in youth because his daughter is a teacher and he is involved in the Optimist Club, whose motto is “Friend of youth.”

“It’s been an honor serving on the school board. I thought I knew a little bit about what goes on in the education system. I didn’t know anything,” he said.

He favors educating the public about an elected vs. an appointed school board and letting voters  decide by referendum vote. If a bill passes in the Maryland General Assembly, that referendum will  be held this fall.

“But, in my opinion, if it’s ain’t broke, don’t fix it. In my tenure, I’ve seen the process work well,” he said.

Hudson, the mother of two, recalled 2011, when she felt naïve about the school system.

“It was alarming what was being cut,” she said, explaining she and other mothers formed an advocacy group to support initiatives including a new Bennett Middle School.

Her appointment to the school board was somewhat controversial she said, and “really added a lot of fuel to the fire about an elected vs. an appointed school board,” she said.

If the school board changed to elected, she is concerned not enough qualified candidates will run.

“I cannot tell you how much of my heart and soul, my time, is spent on the school board. It is a huge commitment … our schools should be the biggest asset of our community. Every decision we make impacts all of Wicomico County. I would not campaign for a position on the school board. It’s a little troubling if you think about the four of us out their campaigning,” she said.

Palmer, the newest member, favors an elected board.  The father of four sons who went to local schools, Palmer formerly taught at the Naval Academy in Annapolis, where he had no problem with discipline, he said to laughter and nods.

“Some moves have been made to improve that in our schools and they are  very, very good moves,” he said.

Palmer said he’s concerned about the public being informed “about the good things going on.”

“We must get information out to the public better,” he said.

Agreeing, Hudson praised programs that might be unknown, including Project Lead the Way, a college-level engineering class; honors programs; advanced placement classes; and national contests that local students win.

Sheehan introduced Ernie Colburn, executive director of the Chamber of Commerce, who said the Chamber is “deeply embedded” in the education system.

Attendee Chris Eccleston, owner of Delmarva Veteran Builders, asked for the “three biggest wins” in the past year.

Fitzgerald mentioned the new Bennett Middle School, prompting Willey to recall it almost wasn’t built, but officials proceeded thanks to public outcry. “Change does occur when the community speaks up,” Willey said.

Palmer said he’s pleased all schools will soon be air conditioned, once the new West Salisbury Elementary is built. He called cool, comfortable schools throughout Wicomico “a fantastic achievement.”

He also praised the mentoring program and students who excel in art, band, police and nursing programs and college-level competitions. Fitzgerald said seniors in county schools have received close to $8 million in scholarships.

Hudson urged public attendance of school board meetings. The next meeting will be at 7 p.m. March 8 in the auditorium of the Long Avenue building.

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