2020 | Bethesda Beat

Candidates criticize school board’s communication, boundary study

One of many questions in Bethesda Beat’s Voters Guide

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Two themes emerged when Montgomery County Board of Education candidates were asked to critique the current board: a boundary study and communication.

Candidates were asked to name one thing the current board handled poorly. About half mentioned the board’s handling of a districtwide boundary analysis.

Some candidates, including incumbents, said the board could improve its communication, engagement or collaboration with the public.

There was overlap, too — some candidates specifically criticized the board on its communication related to the boundary study.

The question was one of 10 that Bethesda Beat asked candidates for Montgomery County school board.

Bethesda Beat is presenting the candidates’ responses to specific questions over a period of several days leading up to the June 2 primary. To see their answers to all of the questions and for background information on the candidates, go to Bethesda Beat’s Voters Guide.

Thirteen candidates are running for one at-large seat on the board. Two of the 13 candidates in the primary will advance to the general election on Nov. 3.

The District 2 and District 4 seats are up for election this year, too.

There are two candidates on the ballot for District 2. There is no primary in that race; both will move ahead to the general election.

In District 4, three candidates filed for the seat, creating a primary election. However, Ehren Park Reynolds has withdrawn from the race, but his name remains on the primary ballot.

Twelve of the 13 candidates for the at-large seat on the school board answered Bethesda Beat’s questionnaire. Collins Odongo did not respond to multiple invitations to answer the questionnaire.

All four of the candidates in the races for the District 2 and District 4 seats answered the questionnaire.

Candidates for U.S. Congress and Montgomery County Circuit Court judge also are part of the Voters Guide.

Below are the candidates for all three school board seats and their written answer to the question:
What is one issue the current school board has handled poorly? What would you have done? (75 words max)

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At-large

• Mitra Ahadpour
“The ineffectiveness of the process the BOE used in rolling out the boundary study demonstrated their misunderstanding of the important processes involved in managing change — in obtaining critical and ongoing input from students, parents, educators and members of the broader community. We need an increase in transparency and communication to determine the will of our community stakeholders. After a policy, there should be follow-up on the impact that policy has had, including any unintended consequences.”

• Stephen Austin
“Communicating effectively about Policy FAA changes and the objectives of the Boundary Analysis. The story and the deliverables have changed multiple times, and it is unclear even what the objective is now. I believe in committing to something and seeing it through. The boundary changes in Clarksburg were very unpopular, and the BOE handled that poorly. But changing the Boundary Analysis mid-stream was not the best response. Maybe they should have paused and reassessed first.”

• Anil Chaudhry
“The four years during current contract negotiations with the superintendent. This includes the failure to address the culture of rape and sexual assault, the culture of entitlement when responding to public requests for information, the culture of adversarial communications with most members of the community, and general lack of transparency.”

• Sunil Dasgupta
“The board has been reactive on the boundary issue and lost control of the public discussion. MCPS has student enrollment and demography data. The data on school proximity is a GIS layering exercise. Rather than completing this work and releasing the data and the software tool, they allowed the data collection itself to become controversial, contracted out the responsibility for public engagement, and changed the contractor’s scope of work under pressure.”

• Paul Geller
“Overall, I think the Board of Education does a good job. These elected officials are paid little, rarely receive positive feedback, yet do a yeoman’s job. One area I will focus on is how the Department of Facilities Management issues contracts, and why they will seldom consider renovating existing buildings, or opening up bidding to additional contractors who specialize in school renovations. This stubbornness costs MCPS millions of dollars annually. This is unacceptable.”

• Jay Guan
“I think the board can do better in communication and community engagement, especially on social media. MCPS and Board of Education presence and communication strategies in social media seem very one-way at the moment. There are opportunities where MCPS and BOE can be more proactive in addressing parent concerns and fears. Furthermore, the Board can do better in conducting outreach to immigrants and other traditionally hard to reach communities.”

• Lynne Harris
“Timely, transparent communication and meaningful engagement of students, staff and families is an ongoing challenge with MCPS/BOE. Viewing the announcement of a decision as the start of engagement hasn’t worked. The unwillingness to communicate and share data timely and transparently has resulted in a tremendous lack of trust. I would treat stakeholders as the smart, valuable partners they are and plan routine stakeholder work sessions. Their wisdom and experience are essential to good decision-making.”

• Collins Odongo
Did not respond

• Dalbin Osorio
“I believe the current school board should have been more transparent about the boundary analysis, including but not limited to the overall process and what the end goal was. We cannot ask people to put their faith in us and then not reward that faith with vagueness. I would have worked to solicit more feedback from the community, because 1,000 residents is not a high enough number to really gauge what our community really wanted.”

• Cameron Rhode
“I was fortunate enough to have the same counselor all four years of high school, but not all MCPS students have this privilege. Students have understandably expressed frustration at being assigned different counselors in different years of high school. Developing a relationship with one counselor is valuable to students in establishing trust and in securing a quality recommendation letter for college. If elected, I will work to increase continuity in counseling.”

• Darwin Romero
“I believe the school board needs to communicate better with the community. When the boundary studies came out, there was so much misinformation that it caused parents to lose their cool and spread half-truths. We are the 14th-largest school district in the nation and have been recognized as having some of the most diverse cities, but that comes with great responsibility.”

• Pavel Sukhobok
“The school board has made a mess of the redistricting process. While diversity is an integral part of any education system, a lack of accountability and transparency has marred the process from the start, whether it’s changing longstanding policy without public comment or modifying the scope of the study without being upfront. I would have focused on changing the way the schools are run instead of changing what students go to what school.”

• Lumpoange Thomas
“I believe that the Board of Education could have done a much better job of openly investigating the Damascus High School junior varsity football hazing incident. I would have contacted law enforcement as soon as it was reported by the victims.”

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District 2 (in and around Gaithersburg)

• Michael Fryar
“Communications could be improved. For example, the boundary analysis should have been more transparent from the start, with parents’ concerns and questions being clearly and directly addressed.”

• Rebecca Smondrowski
“Communication and transparency are key to successful relationships. Frequent, honest dialogue and engagement are essential for all stakeholders. BOE members are an extension of the community, serve as the voice of the residents, and must act in the best interests of all students. The September 2018 FAA policy change should have been sent back for additional public input; unfortunately, not having done so has caused mistrust of subsequent actions related to boundaries.”

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District 4 (from Silver Spring north through Glenmont)

• Shebra Evans
“The board holds cluster meetings, public hearings, and various other meetings, but can always improve upon how we engage our community on issues impacting public education.”

• Steve Solomon
“The Board of Education needs to be more receptive and collaborative with parents and the public. Not enough time is spent listening and responding to issues that parents and students have. I would encourage more public commentary before changes in legislation are made.”

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Coming Wednesday: Do you support raising the salary for school board members? Why or why not? If yes, how much?

From Monday: For school board candidates, a range of views on top issue in race

From Saturday: Candidates assess Superintendent Jack Smith