Retired Principal, Former Student Member Eye County Board of Education Seat

Retired Principal, Former Student Member Eye County Board of Education Seat

Jeanette Dixon files to take on Kauffman for at-large slot; Sebastian Johnson may run as well

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Jeanette Dixon, left, has filed to run for an at-large Montgomery County Board of Education seat in 2016, while Sebastian Johnson, right, is considering a run

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Next year’s race for an at-large seat on the Montgomery County Board of Education could get crowded, with a retired school principal announcing her intention to take on incumbent Phil Kauffman and a former student member of the board mulling whether to run.

Jeanette Dixon of Silver Spring, who was a high school and middle school principal in the Montgomery County school system, has filed to challenge Kauffman, who announced last week  he would seek a third four-year term. Meanwhile, Sebastian Johnson, a Takoma Park resident who served as the student member of the county school board in 2005-2006, said he is being urged to run for the at-large seat.

“I have been approached by a lot of people in the county who are frustrated by the direction the school system is going in,” Johnson said in a telephone interview, adding he will reach a decision prior to the Feb. 3 filing deadline.

Dixon, who spent three decades as a teacher and administrator in the county school system prior to her retirement in 2013, struck a similar note in a letter posted on her campaign website declaring, “I believe it is time for a change of direction on the school board.” In an interview Thursday, she added, “I love the Montgomery County public schools, and I feel the education that the students get is world class. But I think there are things we can do better.”

She said there “needs to be more transparency in terms of…allowing more people to become involved in the decisions that are made.” As an example, she cited the board’s recent move to do away with final exams, declaring: “The final exam decision was made before [there was] really any consultation or input from the teachers. I agree that there was absolutely too much testing, but I’m not sure throwing out all the final exams is a good idea because you don’t have a way to benchmark with schools across the system.”

Related: Next year's contests for county school board beginning to take shape 

Three seats on the school board will be up in next year’s election, out of a total of seven seats for adult members elected for four-year terms. In addition, the student member who is allowed to vote on some issues that come before the board is chosen annually by middle and high school students.

The 2016 election comes in the wake of the school board’s decision earlier this year not to renew the contract of former Superintendent of Schools Joshua Starr. Just prior to the decision not to retain Starr, Dixon attracted widespread attention with an open letter critical of the then-superintendent. “Dr. Starr went on a yearlong listening tour that we were told would help him assess the state of the MCPS instructional program,” Dixon’s letter read. “However, it is unclear what he learned and what he’s done in response to his learning.”

Dixon said Thursday that the board made the right move in not retaining Starr. “I think that it took courage on the part of the board members who declined to vote to renew his contract,” she said. “I like Josh personally, but I just feel that we need someone who is going to…collaborate with all stakeholders. I don’t think the best job was done in that area.”

Kauffman, 62, was reported to be among a group of board members who favored renewing Starr’s contract. An Olney resident, Kauffman is a retired deputy assistant general counsel of the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs.

Dixon, 66, started her career a student teacher in the Montgomery County system and then taught for nine years prior to becoming an administrator, including a stint as an assistant principal at Bethesda’s Walter Johnson High School. For her last 16 years in the system, she served as a principal first at White Oak Middle School in Silver Spring, and then at Paint Branch High School in Burtonsville.

Meanwhile, Johnson pointed to the so-called achievement gap as one of the major issues prompting him to consider a run. The county school system, where nearly 70 percent of the student population are members of minority groups, has been plagued in recent years by achievement levels that have differed along racial lines.

“We’ve known we’ve had a problem in Montgomery County for a long time,” said Johnson, who was raised in Takoma Park by a single mother who is a teacher in the District of Columbia school system. Noting that his mother was the only member of his extended family with a higher education, Johnson added, “There are a number of students from backgrounds like mine, African-American, Latino students. So what is really most important to me is to have someone on the board who can faithfully represent those issues.”

A graduate of Montgomery Blair High School in Silver Spring, Johnson, 27, holds degrees from Georgetown University and Harvard University’s John F. Kennedy School of Government, and taught third grade in Massachusetts for two years. He is currently a policy fellow at the Washington-based Institute on Taxation and Economic Policy, the research arm of Citizens for Tax Justice. “I think it would be great to have someone on the board who has gone through the school system and is a little closer to it,” he said.

Besides the at-large seat, the board seats representing District 4 in the Silver Spring/Takoma Park area and District 2, in the central part of the county are up for election in 2016. Chris Barclay, who has held the District 4 seat since 2006, is retiring, and Shebra Evans, who has held several posts in the Montgomery County Council of PTAs, has filed for that slot.

No one has yet filed in District 2, where incumbent Rebecca Smondrowski of Gaithersburg, first elected in 2012, is expected to seek re-election.

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