2021 | Schools

Finalists for school board vacancy would focus on superintendent search, COVID-19 recovery

Board will appoint a new member on Thursday

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Members of the Montgomery County Board of Education interview candidates for the vacant District 3 seat.

By Caitlynn Peetz

Candidates for a vacant seat on the Montgomery County Board of Education said on Tuesday that, if appointed, they’d focus on the school district’s recovery from the COVID-19 pandemic, a countywide staffing shortage, hiring the next superintendent of schools and a more refined approach to equity.

The current board on Tuesday interviewed eight people who applied to fill the District 3 seat, which has been vacant since the death of Pat O’Neill in September at age 71.

The board was expected to go into a closed session meeting following the interviews to deliberate.

The board plans to announce its choice during Thursday’s school board meeting and the newest member will be sworn in at 4 p.m. on Dec. 14.

O’Neill had held the District 3 seat since 1998. District 3 includes parts of Bethesda, Chevy Chase, Kensington and Potomac.

Eighteen people applied for the position before the deadline. The school board narrowed the list to eight following a closed session meeting in mid-November.

The candidates were provided five questions in advance of Tuesday’s interviews. The questions centered on their individual experience, their understanding of the school board’s responsibilities and the school district.

The following is a summary of the candidates’ answers to one question: “What are the priorities that you hope to address as a board member?,” plus other highlights from their interview, and some personal information provided in their application for the position:

Cynthia Anderson-Clay of Potomac
Anderson-Clay is the director of development for the George B. Thomas Sr. Learning Academy. During Tuesday’s interview, she said her priorities would be improving the relationships between the school district and families, as well as teachers and students. She said she would use a data-driven approach and collaboration with local parent-teacher associations to improve equity in MCPS with a “growth mindset.”

Equity discussions “should not focus just on race,” she said, but also other factors, such as socioeconomic status, gender, sexual orientation, family background, disability and religious beliefs.

Anderson-Clay said the most pressing issues facing the school district are students’ and staff members’ recovery from COVID-19, and mitigating “Zoom burnout.” She also highlighted the need to address learning disruption during the pandemic, an ongoing staffing shortage, student and teachers’ emotional well-being and food insecurity.

Anderson-Clay is a mother of two MCPS graduates. She was involved with the Bells Mill Elementary School PTA.

Ana Sol Gutierrez of Chevy Chase
Gutierrez was a school board member for eight years prior to O’Neill being elected in 1998. She then was a Maryland state delegate between 2002 and 2018.

She said the top priorities in the next year will be hiring the next superintendent of MCPS and developing the annual capital and operating budgets. Gutierrez was on the school board during a search for a superintendent in 1991, when Paul Vance was hired.

She said her previous experience on the board would be valuable because she would not have the same learning curve as other candidates to learn the ins and outs of district operations.

She said she would use data to drive decisions and wants the board to be transparent about that data. Gutierrez also said MCPS needs to place a greater emphasis on including Hispanic and Latino families in decision making processes.

She is a graduate of Bethesda-Chevy Chase High School.

Scott Joftus of Bethesda
Joftus and his family moved to Montgomery County about 20 years ago. One of his daughters is a graduate of Walt Whitman High School, and the other is a junior at the school.

Joftus said his priorities would be hiring a superintendent, continuing work to promote equity and inclusion, and addressing staffing shortages. He said it is important for the school board to have “consensus” and “speak with one voice.”

A former teacher, Joftus in 2004 co-founded FourPoint Education Partners, a consulting firm that conducts equity reviews, leadership coaching and school system improvement work in districts in 34 states.

Through that work, Joftus said he is “uniquely prepared to understand” problems school districts face, and the unique and innovative ways they can address them.

Benjamin McDonough of Kensington
McDonough appeared via video for his interview because he was out of town traveling. He is the chief counsel for the Office of the Comptroller of the Currency in the U.S. Department of the Treasury.

He previously taught English for a year in Finland.

McDonough said he would prioritize “continuing to work through COVID” by ensuring both teachers and students have what they need to be successful. He would hope to provide more resources to support students’ and employees’ mental health, and explore how to provide a top-tier virtual learning opportunity for students who want one.

He said he would also want to address the “ongoing achievement gap,” but also ensure students who are “in the middle” — not struggling or excelling — don’t feel “stigmatized” or excluded.

McDonough said his third priority would be to focus on transparency and public input.

Neal Orringer of Bethesda
Orringer said he would focus on the “most pressing issues” in MCPS, including the “understaffing crisis” and hiring the next superintendent.

Also important, he said, would be ensuring schools are a healthy and safe environment for students, teachers and other staff members, as well as “understanding the impact of COVID-19.” It would be important, he added, to “get into the community” to learn more and “represent everyone’s interests.”

Orringer is the founding president of Applied Science and Technology Research Organization” and was previously the vice president of advocacy for the Montgomery County Council of Parent Teacher Associations. He held that position when Lynne Harris, a current school board member, was president of the organization.

Debby Orsak of North Bethesda
Orsak said she would work to fulfill priorities that O’Neill shared during her time on the board. Those include: putting children first, investing in staff members, engaging with families and ensuring students are ready for college or a career following high school graduation.

Orsak said it would “not be appropriate” for a candidate to set a list of “priorities they were not elected to fulfill.” She said she would not run for election when the remainder of O’Neill’s term ends in 2022.

Orsak has held multiple leadership positions with her children’s PTAs, including president at Luxmanor Elementary, Tilden Middle and Walter Johnson High. She is an area vice president in the MCCPTA. Her youngest child is a student in MCPS.

Orsak is president of Cagley & Associates, which works on general structural engineering of buildings.

She said the five most pressing issues facing the school district in the coming year are addressing learning disruption during the pandemic, supporting students’ and staff members’ mental health, hiring a new superintendent, combating the staffing shortage and the development of the next fiscal year’s operating budget.

Vashti Van Wyke of Cabin John
Van Wyke is a graduate of MCPS and is a mother of four children currently enrolled in the school district. She is a lawyer and a member of the PTAs at her children’s schools.

One of her children has an individualized education program and another has been in a gifted program. She said her experience navigating many aspects of MCPS as a parent and former student would be valuable.

Her priorities would be to keep the school board’s focus on COVID-19 recovery, with an emphasis on addressing learning loss, staffing shortages and keeping mitigation protocols up-to-date.

She also would want to support work focused on equity, improve teacher recruitment and retention efforts, improve technology in classrooms, increase engagement with families and monitor the rollout of the Blueprint for Maryland’s Future.

Van Wyke said her step-family moved to Silver Spring as refugees from El Salvador, so she understands “the challenges of integrating immigrants into the school system” and speaks fluent Spanish.

Julie Yang of Potomac
Yang has worked for MCPS since 2011, currently as a college and career coordinator.

Yang’s priorities would be to ensure the safety of students and staff members during the ongoing pandemic, ensuring the district prioritizes projects and programs while maintaining fiscal responsibility, and working to recruit and retain talented and diverse teachers.

She said it is important to find a superintendent able to lead a large, diverse, complex school district, and to work harder to “sincerely seek student voice” when making decisions.

Yang moved to America as an adult, she said, and saw firsthand the linguistic, cultural and socioeconomic challenges many immigrant families face. One of her children is a recent MCPS graduate and another is enrolled in the district.

Yang said she would visit all schools in District 3 and “really listen to what teachers, administrators, students and parents have to say.”

Caitlynn Peetz can be reached at caitlynn.peetz@bethesdamagazine.com