Esther Wells is one of two new candidates in the race for the District 1 seat on the Montgomery County Board of Education. Credit: Photo courtesy Esther Wells

With less than a week before the candidate filing deadline, races for seats on the Montgomery County Board of Education continue to fill out, with two new candidates on the ballot in District 1.

Last month, Grace Rivera-Oven, a community activist and former political director for U.S. Rep. David Trone, filed for the seat now held by Judy Docca.

Multiple attempts to reach Rivera-Oven by phone and email since March have been unsuccessful.

In 2018, she was the owner of a public relations business, on the board of Strathmore Music Center and a member of the Montgomery County Board of Elections, according to Bethesda Beat reporting at the time.

Docca has not responded to multiple requests for comment from Bethesda Beat about whether she plans to run for re-election. The filing deadline is 9 p.m. on Friday, and Docca told Bethesda Beat in 2018 that she would not run again.

Last week, Gaithersburg resident Esther Wells also filed for the District 1 seat, joining a slate with District 5 candidate Dawn Iannaco-Hahn and at-large candidate Michael Fryar.

A slate of candidates means they “join together to conduct and pay for joint campaign activities,” according to state documents.

Jay Guan, an aerospace engineer from Clarksburg, was the first to file as a candidate in the District 1 race.

There will be a primary election in the race, which will be held July 19. Primary elections are held in school board races as long as the number of candidates is more than double the number of seats — so, at least three candidates for one seat.

In an interview on Monday, Wells said she was compelled to run for the school board after witnessing the consequences of the COVID-19 pandemic and virtual classes firsthand with her 9-year-old son, who has autism spectrum disorder and ADHD.

The compensatory services he usually receives lagged or stopped altogether, Wells said, adding that she has heard similar stories from other parents.

Wells said she wants to help “stop the bleeding” and ensure students “turn the corner and receive the reasonable accommodations they … need to survive.”

She also has a 4-year-old who will attend MCPS.

Wells, 34, moved to the United States with her family from Trinidad and Tobago when she was 8 years old, and attended Montgomery County Public Schools. She graduated from Watkins Mill High School.

She said she feels a responsibility to “give back” to the community.”

“I know we have the best school system in the nation because … I’ve used education as my ticket out of poverty, so I feel the need to reach back out to my community and pay it forward to the next child who might be coming to school hungry,” Wells said. “I’m saying, ‘I know we can do this’ because I am a testament to that, and I want to see my story harnessed and replicated 165,000 times so these kids can have a brighter future.”

If elected, Wells said, one of her main priorities would be to help community members understand MCPS’ nearly $3 billion budget. Wells is a certified public accountant, so she feels confident she could help analyze if MCPS is getting good return on its investments and explain the complicated budget in simple language.

She would also aim to expand access to financial literacy courses and programs, she said. She outlined a concept similar to the Junior Achievement Finance Park at Thomas Edison High School, where middle school students go through a simulation of personal finance decisions.
Students make decisions such as selecting a health care provider, purchasing a car, balancing a budget and buying a home.

Each session is led by community volunteers. There are more than 15 storefronts in the simulation. Each is sponsored by a local business and outfitted to look and feel like a real store.

Wells said she would like to see programs like that expanded and more readily available to all students, particularly on days when school is not in session.

She would also focus on expanding access to early childhood education for children younger than 5 years old if they show they are academically and socially “ready,” and examining if school lunches are healthy and enjoyed by students.

Wells has not run for elected office before, she said, and does not hold any leadership positions in parent-teacher associations or other groups.

But, she said, “I do have the background of growing up in poverty and rising through the socioeconomic class, giving me the ability to give empathy and see … it’s not always about the dollars, but instead ensuring that children have what they need and can show us what they can do.”

The candidates who filed to run for each of the four school board seats on the ballot this year, as of Monday afternoon, were:

At-large:
Michael Fryar of Gaithersburg
Domenic Giandomenico of Silver Spring
Karla Silvestre of Silver Spring (incumbent)

District 1:
Jay Guan of Clarksburg
• Grace Rivera-Oven of Germantown
• Esther Wells of Gaithersburg

District 3:
Scott Joftus of Bethesda (incumbent)
Julie Yang of Potomac

District 5:
Valerie Coll of Silver Spring
Dawn Iannaco-Hahn of Silver Spring
Brenda Wolff of Silver Spring (incumbent).

There will be a primary election for the at-large, District 1 and District 5 seats because they have at least three candidates. If the District 3 seat has two candidates when the filing deadline passes, they both will advance to the general election in November.

Caitlynn Peetz can be reached at caitlynn.peetz@bethesdamagazine.com