2022 | Politics

Community engagement, mental health, staff retention top concerns in school board race

Eleven candidates in four different races participate in forum hosted by League of Women Voters

share this

File Photo

Several candidates running for the Montgomery County Board of Education offered similar views on community engagement, providing mental health support for students and staff, and how to help combat teacher and school personnel shortages during a forum Wednesday.

The candidates somewhat differed in their opinions on how gender identity and sexual orientation should be taught in classrooms, among other topics.

The county’s League of Women Voters hosted the evening forum, which was moderated by Janelle Wong, a professor of American studies, government and politics at the University of Maryland. Eleven of the 14 candidates running in the July primary participated, running in four different races:

  • At-large (representing the entire county): Domenic Giandomenico, board Vice President Karla Silvestre 
  • District 1: Alex Fahmy, Jay Guan, Grace Rivera-Oven, Esther Wells
  • District 3: Marcus Alzona, board member Scott Joftus (appointed to fill the remainder of Pat O’Neill’s term), Julie Yang
  • District 5: Valerie Coll, Dawn Iannaco-Hahn, board President Brenda Wolff 

Mike Erickson (at-large), Michael Fryar (at-large), and Valerie Coll (District 5) also were invited, but Wong said they were unable to participate because of other obligations. The seats representing Districts 2 and 4 are not up for election this year.

Candidates rotated answering specific questions during the forum, which covered issues ranging from school safety and the policy use of data in schools to inequity in schools, creative ways to recruit teachers and staff and other issues. 

Most candidates agreed on another issue — the idea that gender identity and sexual orientation should be taught freely by educators in the classroom. It’s become a hot topic in school board races across the country.

Giandomenico said it would not be wise to “tolerate censorship in the classrooms” of Montgomery County Public Schools, and that students should have access to all available information on gender identity and sexual orientation. Silvestre, Yang and Joftus agreed, saying that educators need the freedom to teach students about the issue.

Joftus took aim at the “Don’t Say Gay” law in Florida, which prevents teachers from teaching about gender identity and sexual orientation in kindergarten through third grade or “in a manner that is not age-appropriate or developmentally appropriate for students in accordance with state standards,” according to the bill.

“I think as a county, fortunately, we live in a progressive community, but we have to be on guard that that sentiment doesn’t come into our school system,” Joftus said. “LGBTQ issues are of … most importance to me.”

Fahmy didn’t directly oppose providing such instruction, but said that parents should know what is being taught in the classroom, no matter what subject. Alzona said all students should be respected, but then appeared to go a step farther.

“We do have to have transparency in the schools and a lot of this seems like we’re trying to shoehorn a national issue into our local policies,” Alzona said. “I think most parents in Montgomery County would agree that you shouldn’t be building in a lot of these issues into kindergarteners’ curriculum.”

Some candidates were asked to name the top one or two issues facing MCPS and how they would address them. All responses included some reference to supporting staff and students’ mental health needs.

Iannaco-Hahn said her experience as a mental health therapist would help her address that issue, which has been compounded by the coronavirus pandemic.

“What I’ve been saying for a long time is that the number one priority in MCPS right now needs to be mental health,” Iannaco-Hahn said. “Kids cannot learn if they are anxious, if they are depressed, if they are suicidal, and we need to address that.” 

Wolff agreed, adding that it will be important for students to remain in school buildings, and educators teaching in-person. She acknowledged the effect that the two years of the pandemic and long lengths of remote learning had on instruction, but also noted that school officials have hired 38 new social workers to address some issues. 

Wells said she decided to run for the board after witnessing how learning loss due to the pandemic has harmed her son.

“My son has autism and ADHD, and his learning loss caused trauma and damage, [and] it has caused anxiety [and] frustration with his schoolwork,” Wells said. “And as a parent … I’m here to advocate for him and ensure that he has the resources that he needs.”

Candidates were also asked about what systemic inequities within MCPS exist, and need to be addressed most urgently. Several agreed that there need to be better efforts to recruit and retain teachers, especially for schools with higher minority populations. 

“I support incentivizing teachers and principals to go to work in our highly impacted schools,” Silvestre said of those efforts. “I support an audit of our programs to ensure that we have high access to high [quality] programs all over the county, and I support programs like community schools that bring additional resources to the schools that need it the most.”

Yang specifically highlighted the opportunity gap. The opportunity gap is when certain populations of students, including low-income and minority populations, face obstacles during their educational career, which can lead to worse reading, math and other levels.

She said the district needs to provide more internship opportunities and after-school programs for students in those schools to help them improve academically and socially.

“Children cannot be what they cannot see,” Yang said. “We must provide all the opportunities for all our students.”

Candidates also were asked how they’ve addressed racial equity and social justice in their careers. All who answered mentioned some form of mentoring, mental health support or other assistance they’ve offered to students and families in their community. 

Wolff specifically touted her work in civil rights and on addressing inequity in student discipline while serving as the former director of the Office for Civil Rights in Philadelphia. She acknowledged, however, that there is still work to be done, particularly with making sure Black and brown students are not disciplined at disproportionate rates when compared to their peers.

Fahmy and others mentioned mentoring students — in his case, in sports and entrepreneurship — to help them figure out what careers they might be interested in. Guan highlighted his experience with advocating and organizing student and parent organizations. Those efforts included connecting them to wraparound services, connecting communities with cultural proficiency resources for interacting with immigrant families, and helping run ESOL programs to those who need it, Guan added.

Rivera-Oven, a community organizer and public relations professional, said her work on helping students avoid gangs has been impactful.

“For many years I mentored and ran this program, taught them everything,” she said. “All the skills that they needed, many of them conflict resolutions, [and] helped them to find a job, turn around their life.”

“It was actually creating a space where they had mentors, and where they knew that their community loved them, and wanted them to see them succeed and challenge them to be their best,” Rivera-Oven said.

The primary election is July 19. Although candidates must live in the district they represent, all registered county voters — including those not registered as a Democrat or Republican — can vote for each race. The school board election is nonpartisan. 

Steve Bohnel can be reached at steve.bohnel@bethesdamagazine.com