Editor’s note: Bethesda Beat is running a series of profiles on Montgomery County Board of Education candidates running in the Nov. 8 general election. Today’s profiles focus on District 1 candidates Grace Rivera-Oven and Esther Wells. All candidates were asked the same questions. Some answers were shortened for length and clarity.

Two Montgomery County Public Schools graduates are facing off in the race for the District 1 seat on the Board of Education.

A community activist, Grace Rivera-Oven is 53 and lives in Germantown. Her three children are graduates of MCPS.

Certified public accountant Esther Wells is 35 and lives in Gaithersburg. She has two children, one who is a current MCPS student and one who will be an MCPS student in the future.

The winner of this race will fill the seat that will be vacated by longtime school board member Judy Docca after she decided not to run for re-election. Docca, 82, was first elected to the school board in 2006, and was re-elected three times. She previously worked for MCPS for 38 years.

Grace Rivera-Oven

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Who are you, what do you do, and why are you running?

I am a lifelong resident of Montgomery County. I did my schooling in the city of Gaithersburg and graduated from Gaithersburg High School, and I’ve been an activist for more than 30 years. Originally I was born in Bolivia. In a nutshell, I’m an activist, a mom, and somebody who’s served on many, many boards and committees when it comes to advocacy, not just for the immigrant community, but also domestic violence, juvenile justice and all those areas. I previously ran for County Council once.

I decided to create the UpCounty Hub. At first I was just helping people at a trailer park with food insecurity. I realized there’s so many kids with no broadband, so they have no access to computers. There’s a lack of knowledge for some people that these problems even exist. And with the pandemic, more concerns came up. I decided to take it to the next level. So now we are a full nonprofit. Between seeing these needs, and my love for education, I decided to run for the board. I want every child to have a chance and a good education. That’s what we’re known for. People move to this county because of our education system.

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What are your thoughts on financial equity in Montgomery County Public Schools and making sure all schools have equal resources?

There’s this myth that in Montgomery County the streets are paved with gold. But we have huge needs in many communities in this county. We’re very good about having some important resources in elementary school. But then as you go into the middle schools, those services kind of start cutting back and becoming a little bit less available. And then that’s where the disconnect starts.

It’s not about looking at equity on paper, but it’s looking at equity in practical matters. Do we have the boots on the ground to be able to answer to the needs of that particular community? What good is it, for example, if we have a bilingual counselor at Watkins Mill Elementary who speaks Mandarin, but 80% of the kids there speak Spanish? On paper, you have everything, but in practicality, you don’t. So for me, equity is literally making sure that you do have the things that you need in those particular schools, and making sure those resources are accessible.

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How can the school system make up for loss of learning during the pandemic?

Montgomery County Public Schools offers incredible programs with tutors, but a lot of the families that have socioeconomic challenges don’t even know that service exists. Another battle that I would like to take on is getting resources for those most vulnerable for our community members who don’t have broadband, who don’t have computers. We need to stop assuming everybody has a computer and everybody knows how to set up a password. A lot of these parents are single moms who are working two or three jobs, and we need to make sure we’re getting this information to them.

We also need to understand that we need to slow down a little bit and just really examine that we’re making sure that kids are learning the basics  before we’re like pushing them down the road without having the basics. And part of the basics is socialization that we did not have during the pandemic.

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What would you like to see done to improve student mental health support and services?

There’s so much I want to see. I think it’s great that we passed funding to hire more psychiatrists, psychologists and social workers and everything. That is great. But I think it goes beyond that. We need to invest in creating these programs early on. We need to start early with kids, with restorative justice and conflict resolution early on. We need to be more proactive when it comes to mental health services, not so reactive.

It’s a little broader than just offering mental health support for our students. I think we need to offer that support for our staff. There’s no one person who can say that they have not been impacted by COVID one way or the other.

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What are your thoughts on implementing protections for LGBTQ students in MCPS?

We need to ensure that every child feels loved, respected and welcome at every level in our school system. So there’s resources and we need to ensure that they’ve been implemented. Like I said, it’s awesome to have things in writing. But I’m all about implementation, and being proactive to ensure that’s happening at every school across the system.

How do you view the school’s efforts at recruiting teachers during the labor shortage?

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It is a profession that I think we need to really elevate to the level of respect that it needs to be at. And this is not just Montgomery County, I’m talking like as a nation. I think teachers do not get the respect. To me, a teacher is as important as a doctor because they have an impact on the future of this country. They are literally molding the foundation of who we’re going to be. So with that, we need to pay them well. We need to treat them well.

We also want kids to look at teachers who look like them. That is very important as well. We’re giving additional stipends to new special needs teachers, but there were also incredible teachers, especially special needs teachers who stayed through the tsunami of the pandemic. We should have recognized them as well. I understand we want to bring new blood in. We also need to recognize those who are here already who were already doing the work. So I would have done it across the board.

What do you personally see as the top issues affecting the school system, and what do you want to do to make change or support existing policies?

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Making universal free lunches across the board [permanent] and not temporary. I think we need to take away the stigma. And there’s a reason why some of those numbers go down as kids get older is because there’s a stigma. You don’t want to be known as a kid who gets a free lunch because you’re poor. Food insecurity is a big concern to me. I want the applications for SNAP and other programs to be as easy for parents as possible and to lift those barriers. I want the access for parents to be able to apply for SNAP and [free and reduced-price meals] to be as easy as possible in a way and to lift those barriers.

And mental health, mental health, mental health, mental health. For me, a child who is hungry, a child who is going through a crisis — that’s not a child who’s going to be able to learn. Those things to me are very close to my heart.

Retention of the incredible workforce we already have, and the academic achievement gap. We need to be looking at the resources by each individual school, what is it that they need, so they can actually help a child achieve at every grade level.

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Esther Wells

Who are you, what do you do, and why are you running?

I’ve been a certified public accountant in the state of Maryland for over 12 years. I went through all the MCPS schools, I attended University of Maryland College Park where I got my bachelor’s in accounting, and I also have my master’s in taxation. I’m also a mom of two boys, a 4-year-old and a 9-year-old who has developmental disabilities, and they’re truly the source of my practice for advocacy for all students of MCPS.

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Initially what got my attention was the virtual-only option that the Board of Education decided to offer our students. When my son lost all of his resources, which has truly been the lifeline and the center core of his day, providing him with the life skills he needed, that opened my eyes that something’s not right here. I’ve never had any concerns or issues about MCPS until recently and so that’s what got me interested. I decided to reach out to the special populations office within MCPS, I testified before the Board of Education, and to no avail. I decided the only way to solve it is to get on the board and bring advocacy and awareness and elevate the voice of our special-needs students like my son.

What are your thoughts on financial equity in MCPS and making sure all schools have equal resources?

I think MCPS needs to do a better job of ensuring that resources are equitably distributed amongst the county because at the end of the day, you know these students, they didn’t ask to grow up in the homes that they’re growing up in. And we know education is the greatest equalizer. So for us to break that chain of oppression and to break that cycle of poverty, it’s very important that all students have access to a quality education and that MCPS lives up to its values of commitment to ensuring our students have a world-class education. And right now we have a billion-dollar budget which is unprecedented.

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It is very important that the resources get to the students that need it and give the students an opportunity to show us what they can do — so whether it’s providing a free meal so they’re not hungry and distracted in class, or it’s helping them talk through their emotions and any trauma that they’ve experienced at home. My ticket out of poverty was getting a good education from MCPS. And so I really want to harness that story and to be that role model for students to say I can do this, you can do it.

How can the school system make up for loss of learning during the pandemic?

We’ve widened the achievement gap post-pandemic that was already there pre-pandemic. For example, pre-pandemic, my son was about one year behind and now he’s over three years behind. Some of the reports that have come out of the special populations committee show overt discipline. Black special ed students are five times more likely to be suspended for 10 or more days, which is disproportionate to their peers. That is undue hardship on the students that violates their rights, but it also widens that gap and it takes the children away from getting the education that they need. So some of the things I’d like them to do is be more intentional to really have timely data available and they need to ensure that teachers are allowed to teach [and] students are allowed to learn in classrooms that are healthy, that are safe, that are secure, that are welcoming of their perspective and their lived experiences and that everyone truly is given the attention and resources they need.

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What would you like to see done to improve student mental health support and services?

Right now, MCPS is working through their extra COVID funds. The first tranche they used was to help with the Chromebooks and to ensure the community have what they need for the virtual school and then the second tranche I believe they’ve been dedicating to salaries and wages, and particularly wellness centers in all of our high schools. So it’s tough that they have decided to use one-time funds for a program that is needed in the community to address the mental health issues – which I believe they helped create with their virtual-only schooling for as long as they did – [and] to then say OK, when these funds run out, all of a sudden, our students’ mental health needs are gone and they’re all healed. So we need to start thinking about that now.

If we’re going to use the funds for these wellness centers, we need to ensure that we are meeting the needs of the students and if so, we cannot take these programs away. We need to find sustainable ways to fund them. We need to make sure we’re taking care of students’ mental health, taking care of their human rights, other human needs – food, shelter, clothing, safety, and then they will be available to learn and receive the education we’re going to offer them.

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What are your thoughts on implementing protections for LGBTQ students in MCPS?

I think MCPS is one of the most progressive communities and so it’s important to be aware of what’s happening in our jurisdictions, ensuring that we are in constant communications with parents and all stakeholders to remind them of the things that we have done here, the policies that we have in place. Whether it’s the staff, the teachers, the students, the parents, the entire community, we really need to ensure that we are engaging them at every step of the process, soliciting their feedback, because far too often MCPS does things in a vacuum and parents aren’t being brought along to provide their perspective.

How do you view the school’s efforts at recruiting teachers during the labor shortage?

We really need to look at it on a school-by-school level because it’s the teachers that decide to stay, they’re the ones that are providing coverage, and they’re the ones who are then being pulled too thin. And so I do think that yes, we can recognize and compare ourselves to other jurisdictions, but we do have to look at ourselves and compare ourselves, you know, to our baseline. What are we going to do to get to 100% to ensure that our teachers have what they need — to have any periods to have their lunch to themselves — they have work-life balance and feel welcomed and respected? I would really like to see the Montgomery County Education Association teachers union work better to collaborate with MCPS to show a united front. Community members should not be privy to how divisive things are. We need to unite so that students feel like they have everything they need to thrive.

What do you personally see as the top issues affecting the school system, and what do you want to do to make change or support existing policies?

School safety, the widening of the achievement gap and financials.

Because of the incident that happened at Bethesda-Chevy Chase High School and the football game at Gaithersburg High School, I think school safety has now risen to the top of the issues. One of their new policies says if the child doesn’t attend the school that is currently on the field that they’re unable to attend without their parents being there with them. Well, that creates inequities, because most working-class blue collar families have their parents at work, so now you isolate a whole population of students that would benefit from being in that environment and staying out of trouble. Now you’re left them to go out into the community, I guess it’s an unintended consequence.

So then with B-CC with the communication emergency crisis, we need to ensure that parents know what the plan is when their child is impacted by any type of crisis event. So where do parents meet up with their children? Who should they expect to see from MCPS to communicate with them? We’re hiring all these directors and all these people in the communications field, and we’re still unable to then improve on our communication skills. That’s not acceptable. So there are so many ways I think right now I would prioritize school safety. And again, community engagement, ensuring the board meetings start at times that are convenient for parents and students and teachers to actively participate and know what’s going on and engage.

Early voting for the general election is Oct. 27 through Nov. 3. Mail-in ballots can be cast through the mail or at more than 50 ballot drop boxes countywide.