Candidates for the Montgomery County Board of Education participate in an online election forum hosted Wednesday night by Bethesda Beat. From left to right on the top row: Marketing and Events Manager Ashley Fletcher and candidates Julie Yang and Scott Joftus. Middle row: Bethesda Beat and Bethesda Magazine Executive Editor Anne Tallent and candidates Karla Silvestre and Brenda Wolff. Bottom row: Candidates Esther Wells and Grace Rivera-Oven. Credit: James Musial

Editor’s note: This story was updated at 1:15 p.m. Oct. 27, 2022, to correct the age of Esther Wells, which was listed incorrectly due to an editing error.

With less than two weeks until the Nov. 8 general election, candidates for the Montgomery County Board of Education shared their views on issues ranging from school safety to test scores and staffing shortages in an election forum hosted Wednesday night by Bethesda Beat.

District 1 candidates Grace Rivera-Oven, 53, of Germantown and Esther Wells, 35, of Gaithersburg; District 3 candidates Scott Joftus, 54, of Bethesda and Julie Yang, 52, of Potomac; District 5 incumbent Brenda Wolff, 70, of Silver Spring and at-large incumbent Karla Silvestre, 50, of Silver Spring participated in the forum.

District 5 candidate Valerie Coll, 72, of Colesville was unable to attend. At-large candidate Mike Erickson, 48, of Derwood did not respond to Bethesda Beat’s invitations to participate.

The school board race is nonpartisan and members are elected to serve four-year terms. Wednesday night’s forum was moderated by Bethesda Magazine and Bethesda Beat Executive Editor Anne Tallent.

During the 90-minute forum, candidates were asked a number of questions including what their No. 1 priority would be if elected. Joftus, who owns an education consulting firm, and Rivera-Oven, founder of a nonprofit that tackles food insecurity, both cited mental health support for Montgomery County Public Schools students and staff.

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When asked if MCPS is taking appropriate steps to address learning loss resulting from a switch to virtual learning when schools closed during the pandemic, Yang said the impact of the pandemic must be acknowledged.

“First, we cannot pretend the last two years didn’t happen. We need to make sure that our students are ready to learn, and that we address the mental health needs and also provide support for the families that are experiencing difficulty. Secondly, we know that it is great instruction and programming that can improve our students’ achievement. And in my plan, I would like to see us create clear pathways in science, technology, mathematics, arts and engineering. These are the jobs for the future,” Yang said.

Yang, a former teacher and MCPS college and career counselor, also emphasized the importance of hands-on opportunities and experiences for students.

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“When we expose our students to opportunities, they will be more motivated to learn. Children cannot be what they cannot see … . When we combine hands-on experience, give them a clear future opportunity pathway for future opportunities, we can put excitement back into learning,” she said.

Joftus said it is important to make sure the school system is functioning coherently by implementing policies and initiatives evenly throughout the district.

“The issue is making sure that the system is coherent, and that has not been the case for many years. We need somebody who’s able to help move the system in that direction,” said Joftus, who is running for a four-year term after being appointed in 2021 after the death of longtime school board member Pat O’Neill.

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When asked what MCPS needs to aspire to now that its schools have fallen in nationally rankings in recent years, he reiterated his theory of coherence.

“Coherence is a clear strategy for how we’re going to improve the system and then an alignment of systems structures, resources and culture to make that happen,” Joftus said.

“The point is that we have not been coherent for a really long time. And the way we do that is by being very clear about four or five key initiatives that we want to move the system along,” he said. “It’s really important that we’re not only looking at outcome data which MCPS is very, very good at collecting, but that we’re setting performance management systems that create continuous improvement. That takes expertise, it takes perspective and it takes experience.”

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Wolff, who is seeking a second term, said rankings aren’t the only marker of the school system’s success.

“We are producing a number of students who are doing very well. Poolesville High School is consistently ranked at the top [in the country] … you’re comparing apples and oranges here. But I do think we could do a better job with bringing our parents along and helping them understand how they can help their kids,” said Wolff, who is serving her second term as school board president.

When asked how MCPS should implement its investments in mental health supports, including opening wellness centers in high schools, to reach its many communities and serve the entire student body, Rivera-Oven said she supports hiring mental health professionals from a variety of cultural and linguistic backgrounds.

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“We have talent in this county, we don’t have to go far. We have professionals who speak English, who speak Cambodian, who speak Mandarin who were mental health professionals in their countries. We need to foster that and be able to retain and bring those professionals into our MCPS family. I’m all for looking outside the box in order to make that happen,” Rivera-Oven said.

Yang said it’s also important to make it easy for all families to access support.

“We have a diverse community and this is why it’s so important that we can engage the community in the process,” she said. “We need to make sure the community knows how to access the help, to request help [in the wellness centers]. First thing we need to do is put on our website the information about our wellness centers, and put it in multiple languages. We know students talk to other students more so we can train peer leaders that can help our students navigate the system a little bit better.”

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When asked if MCPS addresses LGBTQ acceptance in age-appropriate ways, and if the district provides appropriate supports and resources for LGBTQ students, Wells said she thinks parents and stakeholders should be involved in decisions and policies about LGBTQ-related instruction.

“MCPS has best-in-class policies when it comes to what people need to be in the best interest of our students … we need to engage community stakeholders. We know that parents are the primary stakeholder in the education of their children. They are their child’s first teacher and they need to be engaged and viewed at [a] minimum as equal partners in the education of our students,” said Wells, an accountant and parent of an MCPS student.

“I will engage with all stakeholders and ensure everyone feels that they are able to have a voice and are able to be part of the curriculum process and that ultimately our students are ready for the real world, and they are aware of sexuality, their sexuality and their identities, at age-appropriate times,” she said.

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Silvestre, who is running for a second term, said she believes that based on MCPS standards and guidelines, students are ready to handle discussion of LGBTQ identities.

“MCPS has worked very hard on this issue with community groups. It has become a leader in the country in terms of implementing the state standards and we have created our own guidelines of work with our staff to support them so that they know how to address many issues that come up in the classroom,” Silvestre said. “I think our students are ready for this, I think that we’re doing the right thing, it’s so important for students to feel welcome in their schools, to feel valued, all of our students, including LGBTQ students.”

Like other districts across the country, MCPS is dealing with an ongoing teacher  staffing shortage. When asked how the district should be addressing the issue, Wolff said she wants to expand programs to encourage current MCPS students to become teachers and to evaluate compensation.

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“Compensation is a big issue. I think autonomy is a big issue, but along with autonomy we have to allow for and provide for accountability for our teachers. And lastly, diversity is absolutely a must. This is one of the things that came out in the antiracism audit [that the district recently conducted] and we are definitely looking at that issue. We are one of the most diverse school systems in the country, starting with our own students,” Wolff said.

Rivera-Oven said she wants to ensure MCPS is also working to retain teachers as well as fill vacancies.

“Our new special education teachers were given an extra stipend, but we’ve yet to recognize those teachers that stayed throughout the pandemic, loyal to making sure that our students were being taught and I wish that we ratify that and give a stipend to those teachers who actually stayed,” said Rivera-Oven, referring to a financial incentive offered in late August to dual-certified staff teaching in general education if they agreed to be transferred to a special education program.

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Silvestre was asked for her thoughts on the Community Engagement Officer program that replaced the school resource officer program and whether she thinks it should be adjusted. 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. Under the CEO program, officers are allowed to be in a space near the front office of a cluster’s high school.

“I think the police in schools discussion is a red herring. We had a whole school year where we didn’t have any police in schools, and the data, the disproportionality is the same in terms of arrest. So that tells me that we have a larger issue in terms of what’s happening in our schools, what’s happening in our community,” Silvestre said.

“Having a CEO come and check in with the principal as the current model is appropriate, in my opinion. We do need to get to the root causes – why are so many of our Black and brown students getting arrested? Why are administrators calling the police when these serious incidents happen?” she said.

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Wells said she supports having police in schools, but wants to address the root of school safety concerns.

“I believe that police officers are needed in times of imminent danger. What I would like us to focus the conversation on however is ensuring our students feel safe and secure. So let’s get to the root of why are they acting out in the first place? Why are they bringing these weapons to school? Is it because they have been bullied, they’ve been harassed or feeling discrimination, they don’t feel safe? Let’s get to the root cause and not just focus on the symptom,” Wells said.

“Because I think when we address the root cause and we disrupt the school to prison pipeline, maybe it’s that they’re frustrated with themselves in their school or because they still can’t read in the fourth grade, So let’s focus on the root cause and everything else will be a moot point.”

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