Board of Education candidates discussed their views on topics ranging from school safety to how to recruit and retain teaching staff Thursday night during an online candidates forum hosted by the League of Women Voters of Montgomery County.
All candidates running in the Nov. 8 nonpartisan general election participated except for at-large candidate Mike Erickson, who was originally on the list of participants. District 1 candidate Grace Rivera Oven participated but was absent for the first couple of questions.
Mike Erickson and incumbent Karla Silvestre are running for the at-large seat, Grace Rivera Oven and Esther Wells are running for the District 1 seat, Julie Yang and incumbent Scott Joftus are running for the District 3 seat and Valerie Coll and incumbent and current board president Brenda Wolff are running for the District 5 seat.
Questions for the forum were submitted by various sponsors, including NAACP-Montgomery County, Identity, Inc., American Association of University Women, METRO DC PFLAG, Asian Pacific American Advocates, Alpha Kappa Alpha, Delta Sigma Theta, Chinese American Parent Association of Montgomery County, Montgomery County Progressive Asian American Network, ElevateHER and Asian American MOVE.
Here are some of the highlights of the night:
Like other districts around the country, Montgomery County Public Schools has struggled to fill teacher vacancies. Candidates shared different perspectives and ideas on how to recruit teachers.
Current board member and District 3 candidate Scott Joftus says he supports raising pay for all teachers as well as differentiating pay for special education and vocational education teachers.
“Those are the positions most difficult to recruit and it requires a lot, a lot more work and a lot of skill as well,” he said.
District 3 candidate Julie Yang said “business as usual is not going to resolve the issue,” and said it is important to assess why teachers are leaving the district and work to change those factors to both retain current teachers and attract new hires.
At-large incumbent Karla Silvestre voiced her support for programs to encourage current MCPS students to become teachers.
“I have been advocating for a robust “Grow Your Own Program” that recruits our own MCPS graduates to go into the field of education and come back and teach. At MCPS we launched a pilot this year with 15 students, and I hope to grow that to great numbers,” she said.
District 1 candidate Grace Rivera Oven expressed similar sentiments, saying it’s important to help support students who want to teach in MCPS to get their certification and training and to help provide training for specialized teachers such as special education.
District 1 candidate Esther Wells said she wants to ensure teachers are paid better so they will stay.
“We just need to stop the bleeding. We need to meet with our teachers, our support staff and understand what exactly they need and ensure that we are addressing those timely and right now. We ultimately need to fund our teachers,” she said.
District 5 incumbent Brenda Wolff, the current board president, said the district needs to find out why minority teachers in particular don’t stay, and work to recruit more minority staff. She also supports a differentiated pay scale for special education and other specialized teachers and addressing pay and the cost of living in the county.
District 5 candidate Valerie Coll, a former MCPS teacher, said the school system needs to listen to teachers.
“Teachers tell us why they don’t stay. They tell us about the demands of the job or how a system sets up unreasonable expectations. So one way to stop the bleeding is to actually listen to the educators and the staff that are in the buildings, and we can do that by making better climate surveys for staff and taking that information, taking that data to help inform us to stop that bleeding,” she said.
Oversight and accountability
When asked how the district and school board could work together for oversight and accountability, candidates addressed a variety of factors
, from communication to budgets.
“You’ve got to be more proactive
, instead of being reactive to so many situations that come up,” Coll said. She said it’s also important to make sure funding is going to students’ needs.
Wolff expressed a similar sentiment.
“We have been more reactive in the last two years dealing with crisis situations, and I think that we have to get back to being forward thinking and getting ahead of situations instead of behind them trying to fix them,” she said.
Joftus said it’s important to not only track progress, but to define key aspects of the implementation of key initiatives and make sure there is involvement through the process of different programs.
Yang responded to criticism she’s heard about the school system’s budget. “We must be good stewards of the money. I propose that the board has an independent researcher or financial analyst of its own,” she said.
Rivera Oven said there needs to be transparency and very clear checks and balances when it comes to how funds are being spent.
Wells said it’s important to have all MCPS auditors and data collectors working together.
“For me the first step in oversight and accountability is bringing all of these parties together so that we’re able to ensure our internal controls are working and community members feel comfortable and trust our system,” she said.
Silvestre noted that it’s important for the board to outline priorities for oversight and accountability in the district superintendent’s evaluation so the superintendent’s staff can respond to the board’s needs.
Policing in schools
Candidates expressed a variety of views about how to handle school safety when asked for their thoughts on policing in MCPS schools.
At the beginning of the 2021-2022 academic year, the county police department’s Community Engagement Officer (CEO) program replaced the former school resource officer (SRO) program. Under the SRO program, county police officers were stationed full time in high schools. The program was scrapped after criticism that it led to higher arrests among Black and Hispanic students and community calls for more emphasis on mental health resources than policing in schools. Proponents counter that the SRO program led to stronger relationships between police officers and the school communities. Under the CEO program, officers are allowed to be in a space near the front office of a cluster’s high school.
Wells expressed a desire to have police officers in schools, but said she does not think they should be involved in student discipline. “I believe that policing in our schools is an important partner in ensuring that we will eliminate any imminent threat from happening,” she said.
Rivera Oven said she does not support having police officers in schools and is concerned about data concerning SRO involvement with Black students and other marginalized students.
“Having SROs at schools is not the magic answer to all the issues of school safety,” she said.
Silvestre said there are opportunities for the police and the school system to collaborate and work together, but that it’s important to outline where police should maybe not be involved, including discipline.
Wolff said she thinks there are ways to work with the police.
“A community engagement program [with police] should be part of a comprehensive system of support that has to include mental health, wellness and preventative services,” Wolff said.
Wolff added that as a Black woman, she understands the concerns of people of color when it comes to policing.
Coll said it’s important to involve faculty who walk the halls every day and know the kids and their needs in school safety plans, and to include robust mental health services as part of school safety plans and services.
Yang said it is important to consider the concerns of Black and brown and disabled communities when it comes to policing. There are other ways to prioritize school safety besides having officers in schools, such as security technology and cameras, she said.
Joftus said he believes the school system has invested a lot of funding in school security but can continue to do better. He expressed a desire to focus more on better communication after recent incidents at Col. Zadok Magruder High School in Derwood and Bethesda-Chevy Chase High School. Parents have complained about a lack of communication during a January shooting at Magruder that critically injured a student and a September lockdown at B-CC High after a student reported seeing a gun. No weapon was found.
“The feedback that we’ve been hearing is that we need to get better about our crisis notification so that parents, students and staff know what is happening as much as possible in real time,” he said.
A recording of the forum will be posted on the League of Women Voters YouTube channel.