Credit: Bethany Rodgers

Eleven candidates for the Montgomery County school board explained Monday night how they’d tackle inequities in education, combat bullying and approach a push to decentralize resources.

A couple hundred people gathered at Gaithersburg High School to hear from the contenders in the forum presented by the Montgomery County Council of Parent-Teacher Associations, the League of Women Voters of Montgomery County, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, the American Association of University Women and Identity Inc. of Gaithersburg.

While four seats on the school board are up for grabs this year, only the candidates for the at-large post and the District 3 seat participated in the forum, since those are the only races with enough candidates for a primary competition. The top two vote getters in each contest will advance beyond the June 26 primary.

In the at-large race, the candidates are: Ryan Arbuckle of Kensington, Timur Edib of North Bethesda, Marwa Omar Ibrahim of Gaithersburg, Julie Reiley of Bethesda, Brandon Orman Rippeon of Gaithersburg, John A. Robertson of Clarksburg, Karla Silvestre of Silver Spring and Stephen Sugg of Rockville. Incumbent Pat O’Neill of Bethesda is facing two challengers, Lynn Amano of Silver Spring and Laura Simon of Potomac, for the District 3 seat.

Since the races for the District 1 and District 5 seats only have two candidates apiece, both contenders in each contest will automatically go on to compete in the November general election.

The roughly two-hour forum covered a wide range of issues concerning Montgomery County Public Schools, but here are some key moments:

– The candidates differed on how to position resources. Some agreed with Superintendent Jack Smith’s move to shift staff and spending away from the MCPS central office in Rockville and position those resources closer to individual schools. “Great schools rise from the ground up, not from the central office down,” said Sugg, a government relations manager for the Housing Assistance Council in D.C. Others took issue with this approach.

Reiley, a former lawyer who has spent years as a parent advocate in MCPS, said she fought against Smith’s attempt to convert six special education school support supervisors to instructional specialists that would work in the schools. The school board ended up converting three positions and leaving three in place. Reiley said she thinks these subject experts should remain centralized so they can serve as a go-to for parents and address needs across the school system.

Ibrahim, an MCPS graduate who’s now an administrator at a preschool in Virginia, said she also disagrees with cuts to the MCPS office that supports accelerated instruction. As a preschool teacher, she’s experienced this type of restructuring, and she said it placed an additional burden on instructors. “You take away that one specialist … you’re putting more of a strain on them, which then affects the students,” she said.

Silvestre, who works in community engagement at Montgomery College, said she agrees with focusing resources on schools, but she said MCPS must make sure students still have access to the special supports they need.

O’Neill said MCPS in its last budget cycle was looking to put more specialists into teaching positions, reducing class sizes and lowering spending in central services.

– Several talked about how their personal experiences have shaped their perspectives. Robertson, an assistant principal at Roberto Clemente Middle School in Germantown, said a cousin with whom he was close as a child ended up involved in crime and became the victim of violence. Reflecting on their different paths, Robertson said the school system in California, where he grew up, had from an early age placed him and his cousin in different categories, based on outdated notions of intelligence and ability. Educators need to reform their paradigm to engage children differently. “We are pushing our kids like widgets through a factory,” he said.

Ibrahim said her parents, who were immigrants, sometimes struggled to navigate MCPS. She said it’s important to reach out to families to educate them on how MCPS works and give them the tools to support their children.

Reiley said, as a Mexican-American growing up in California, she was the target of bullying that took aim at her and her mother. She shared her experience while advocating for more diversity in magnet and choice programs and restorative justice approaches in schools.

– Rippeon placed blame for the achievement gap on families. When asked whether a gap exists between student in the eastern and western halves of the county, Rippeon said there was, but he said that’s not the school system’s fault. “The achievement gap doesn’t reflect a failure in the classroom. It reflects a failure of the parents,” said Rippeon, a businessman who ran for the board in 2016 and lost to Rebecca Smondrowski. He went on to argue for more coordination between MCPS and county services for families.

– Candidates agreed on the importance of achieving more equity in the school system. Silvestre suggested starting young by expanding early childhood education. Amano, a parent advocate from Silver Spring, said she’d support investing in magnet programs and increasing diversity among student bodies across the school system.

O’Neill noted that the school board has begun to shift away from one-way language programs to two-way language immersion programs, which involve both native English speakers and foreign language speakers. The school board has also worked to expand access to enriched instruction, O’Neill said. Edib said vocational training and instilling a love of school in students could help address disparities. 

Bethany Rodgers can be reached at