Jean Smith wasn’t chosen for the Frederick County Board of Education the first time she applied.
“People in power said, ‘Ha, she’s a Republican, forget it,’” Smith said.
But the second time was the charm, and she got her wish in 1994 when then-Gov. William Donald Schaefer appointed her to the board. Now, after a 20-year career that has seen the county’s public school enrollment nearly double, Smith is calling it quits.
“I’m 73 years old. I’ve been there 20 years,” she said. “I think we need some new young blood … it’s time.”
The Mount Airy resident chose not to file for re-election this year and will serve out her last term through December.
She sits on the Maryland Association of Boards of Education’s board of directors and has acted as president of the PTA Council of Frederick County, an elementary, middle and high school volunteer coordinator, and member of the Maryland Congress of Parents and Teachers board of directors. She has also served on school system ethics and redistricting committees.
Smith inherited her sense of public service from her father, who served on their local school board in western Michigan for 15 years.
She decided to combine her passion for public education with county governance after 10 years with the state parent-teacher association. Her tenure has spanned the introduction of full-day kindergarten, the Oakdale High School redistricting, constant challenges of capital projects and budget battles.
Smith led the board as president and vice president for a total of eight years between the two positions.
“I have never, ever made a vote just to be popular with the staff or the public,” she said. “I’ve voted with my heart on what I feel needs to be done.”
Fellow board member Katie Groth, a friend of Smith’s since the 1980s, said she has long admired the education advocate for her expertise and commitment.
“She’s always there, always participating … we can always, always count on Jean,” Groth said, adding that “public education is under attack right now, and we need people with the same energy and enthusiasm for public schools.”
Smith is glad the school board did not increase class sizes more than once during her tenure. She hopes Frederick County Public Schools can keep as many teachers as possible in this budget cycle.
“If we don’t have teachers, good teachers, in every classroom, we have nothing,” she said. “I want to see them have the time and energy to do what they need for each kid in the classroom.”
Groth, who, at 10 years, is the second-longest-serving board member, said she will continue to call on her friend as a source of information.
Years spent on the facilities and finance committee has given Smith valuable insight on discussions about new schools and renovations as the county grows, Superintendent Terry Alban said.
Alban called Smith a “truly professional board member” who continues to stay up-to-date and informed.
“Her years of experience, all of the work she has done with (the Maryland Association of Boards of Education), she truly understands the work as a board member,” Alban said. “Candidates would have a lot to learn from her.”
Smith counts recent years among the board’s most difficult and divisive, but said, “It’s OK that we don’t agree, because you need to see all sides of it.” She later added that “when I get discouraged, I meet the students, and it reminds me why I do this job.”
She may tune in to school board meetings online after leaving, but it will be hard to watch instead of participate — “I would sit and yell at the screen, probably.
“When it ends, I’m going to be really sad,” Smith said. “That’s become a lot of my life. It’s going to be very strange.”
By Rachel S. Karas News-Post Staff
Follow Rachel S. Karas on Twitter: @rachelkaras.