With only one scheduled candidates forum left, the eight people up for four county Board of Educations seats on Nov. 4 made clear Wednesday that there are differences in opinion when it comes to some pressing MCPS issues.
Candidates differed on maintenance of effort, disagreed on whether the school system should institute its own inspector general and shared different views on the importance of later start times. Two candidates challenging incumbents criticized the Board and Superintendent Joshua Starr for what many teachers claim has been a disjointed rollout of the county’s new math curriculum.
The non-partisan Board of Education election pits four pairs of candidates against each other for three district seats and one at-large seat. Every voter in the county gets to vote for every board member, no matter the district.
In Districts 1, 3 and 5, incumbents Judith Docca, Pat O’Neill and Michael Durso are facing challenges from Kristin Trible, Laurie Halverson and Larry Edmonds, respectively. With at-large member Shirley Brandman not running for reelection, potential first-timers Jill Ortman-Fouse and Shebra Evans are facing each other for the one at-large seat on the ballot.
All eight candidates attended a forum Wednesday in Potomac hosted by the Whitman High School Cluster PTA.
When asked for a yes or no answer, only Ortman-Fouse and Halverson said they would support creating an inspector general role for reviewing programming and practices within the Board and MCPS. The idea was suggested by outgoing County Councilmember Cherri Branson earlier this summer in a letter to the Washington Post. Branson was responding to improper personal spending on county credit cards by Board of Education members.
On maintenance of effort, O’Neill, Ortman-Fouse and Trible said they were in favor of tweaking the law to allow the County Council more flexibility in MCPS budgeting. O’Neill and Ortman-Fouse said they have testified in front of Annapolis lawmakers in support of waivers of revisions to the bill.
But Docca and Edmunds made it clear they thought councilmembers haven’t been completely up front during annual budget talks that have often turned into debates on the maintenance of effort law.
The law requires counties in Maryland to fund local school systems at the same per-pupil level as in the previous fiscal year. Going over the maintenance of effort minimum, as MCPS has requested in its recommended budgets , would have locked the county in to a new minimum funding level that councilmembers said could threaten the budgets of other county services.
To meet the school system’s nearly 2.3 billion budget request for this fiscal year but not increase the maintenance of effort minimum for next year, the Council chose some creative accounting measures. It dipped into a healthcare trust for retired MCPS employees, a projected surplus in existing healthcare funds and the MCPS general fund balance.
Docca said she was “hearing Council words” in the responses of some of the other candidates and that “we’re trying very hard to work together with the Council, but our priority is the students. We understand they have a whole county to look at, but we have to advocate for the schools.”
Edmonds, who helped the MCCPTA lobby for the new law in Annapolis, said the Council had reduced per pupil spending for three straight years before the law.
“We had an increasing student population, the blood had to stop flowing,” said Edmonds.
He also said it was “a fool’s dream” that the county can’t get waivers from maintenance of effort minimum spending, which has been a frequent critique of the law by councilmembers.
“As long as the Board says we agree to this waiver, we can get a waiver,” Edmonds said.
His opponent, Durso, said the current law leads to a “political shell game” and that it’s “going to take a meeting of the minds” to keep funding the growing school system at a growing rate.
On Wednesday, she was among the candidates most vocal about moving high school start times to later in the morning and questioned the open house process MCPS held to gauge reaction to one such proposal.
Superintendent Joshua Starr eventually recommended to nix his own proposal, citing cost. The Board asked MCPS for alternate proposals and is expected to hear a new analysis in January.
“We’ve wasted a lot of time with stakeholder meetings, where parents were not given choices or explanations,” Ortman-Fouse said. “We need to have that again. Fairfax County polled their parents and provided four choices. That cost $5 million. With our plan we were given no choices and it cost $20 million? I don’t feel like it was a real discussion.”
Evans, another PTA and MCCPTA veteran, emphasized her desire for better collaboration on multiple issues and suggested the school system should institute career mentors for students as early as the elementary school level.
Docca, a two-term Board member and former MCPS principal, made her strongest stand on Wednesday by arguing against criticisms of the maintenance of effort law. “So far we have not asked for a waiver and we have fought toe-to-toe with the Council,” she said.
Trible, a Gaithersburg resident and former PTA president, has been making her case that it’s time for a fresh face on the Board. When asked about the school system’s rollout of new high school math curriculum, Trible said Superintendent Joshua Starr “should fall on his sword and say, ‘Oh my gosh, we didn’t manage this well.'”
The rollout of the new curriculum for Algebra last year and Geometry this year has been criticized by some teachers who say they aren’t getting course materials until a few weeks before they are supposed to teach it.
O’Neill has been on the Board since 1998 and in seeking her fifth term has emphasized her experience and leadership on many initiatives, including a request for the MCPS administration to reconsider other proposals for later school start times.
The Bethesda resident said she’s concerned about new development and new school-aged children that could come to Westbard, in an already at-capacity Whitman cluster.
“We have argued before the Planning Board and the Council that different assumptions need to be used in assuming the yield of kids out of townhouses and condominiums,” O’Neill said. “The Whitman cluster is crowded, as almost all of our clusters are, and that’s without any new development at Westbard.”
Halverson said she’d be in favor of an inspector general who could audit a number of MCPS programs “that haven’t worked” over the years. She also challenged the rollout of some of the common core curriculum, saying the community wasn’t given an adequate chance to provide input.
She also took aim at O’Neill and Docca, two Board incumbents, for the reasons they did not support the state’s application for federal Race to the Top funding. (Halverson said she too would have refused the funding.)
But she did argue the two expressed their reluctance because it would mean a more stringent teacher evaluation system, while they should have been more worried about the effect the common core rollout would have on students.
Both O’Neill and Docca denied that characterization.
DISTRICT 5: Michael Durso and Larry Edmonds
The incumbent Durso (and fellow Board members O’Neill and Docca) often reminded some of the challengers of the school system’s limited budget and need to make “tough decisions” while prioritizing programs. He said the county has “kind of given our developers a pass” when it comes to development in major master plans such as White Flint and White Oak and that “schools are an afterthought.”
He also said he wasn’t sure a later high school start time would make much of a difference in students’ well-being and he was concerned about moving the start time for middle schoolers up to compensate for the switch.
He cited an “over-acceleration” of students in math courses as one reason the school system is having trouble with large amounts of students failing math final exams. He also said he thinks a recent Innovation program in 10 county schools provided an unfair stigma about those schools.
Edmonds said he’s committed toward partnerships with nonprofits and businesses and that his initial negative view of moving back school start times has changed as the debate has gone on.