School board candidates’ priorities have shifted since COVID-19 pandemic began
Candidates agree focus now is on returning students, staff to school buildings
When the six people running for three open seats on the Montgomery County school board filed their candidacy, the education world was much different.
COVID-19 hadn’t yet surfaced in Maryland and schools were open, functioning normally. Candidates’ priorities focused on issues like hiring more teachers and pursuing construction projects at aging and crowded schools.
But, since the pandemic began, shuttering buildings for the past seven months, most candidates say their priorities have shifted, largely to finding safe ways to bring students back into schools for in-person instruction.
“A year ago, when I first decided to run, I had no idea my platform would change so dramatically, but … of course it’s changed because things are not the same anymore,” said Steve Solomon, who’s challenging incumbent Shebra Evans for the District 4 seat. “The only thing people are asking me about is how to get kids back into school.”
Solomon, a local radio host, originally said his platform was centered around ensuring all schools have basic services such as heat and functioning equipment and that he wanted “do a little good for where I was born and raised.”
Six candidates are running for three seats in the Nov. 3 general election — Solomon and Evans for District 4; Michael Fryar and Rebecca Smondrowski for District 2; and Sunil Dasgupta and Lynne Harris for at-large.
Evans, serving her second consecutive year as president of the school board, said her platform hasn’t changed much since the pandemic began. Rather, she said, COVID-19 has underscored why her priorities — ensuring every student has access to what they need to succeed and building partnerships with community members and organizations — are so important.
Evans, who has two daughters in MCPS, said her experience on the school board is particularly valuable.
“As someone who currently serves on the board, I see where we’ve made progress, but I also know there’s so much we need to continue to do,” Evans said. “With me having served as a board member, I know what that work looks like and I will do it.”
Smondrowski, the incumbent in District 2, is running for her third four-year term on the school board. She said her original campaign platform focused on providing students with a positive and safe school experience, which now encompasses the return to buildings.
“Getting our students back into buildings as soon as possible is the No. 1 priority for me, and making sure that until that happens, they’re having the best possible learning experience they can, which has not been easy for anybody,” Smondrowski said. “While the resources or approach may have changed during COVID, my focus is still the same.”
Fryar, an attorney and former elementary school teacher challenging Smondrowski for the District 2 seat, said there is “no excuse” to not have a plan for bringing students back into school buildings, especially because districts in other states “are showing us the way.”
“The county’s talked a lot about achieving goals, but they haven’t done much to meet them,” Fryar said, highlighting that he was endorsed over Smondrowski by The Washington Post. “One thing I bring to the table is the ability to move us forward.”
Harris, who is a former president of the MCCPTA, an MCPS teacher, nurse and former attorney, said the pandemic has “emphasized something I’ve been saying for a while.”
“We really need people with public health backgrounds embedded in (the system),” Harris said. “Initially, I was talking about that in context of national crisis of childhood trauma and mental wellness and suicide. Those are very real public health problems that certainly preexist COVID. But, now, in a broader sense, having that kind of expertise in house would help the school system pivot quickly and address challenges more robustly.”
Dasgupta, a professor at The Universities at Shady Grove, said MCPS and the school board now “have to be focused on managing and dealing with the pandemic and its consequences.” He said there needs to be more intentional outreach to families and more structured, thorough planning for returning to schools.
Dasgupta said the pandemic is “an opportunity to bring some big changes,” and find innovative ways to better serve students with different needs. When in-person classes resume, for example, some students may do better or prefer to continue virtual learning, which MCPS should accommodate, he said.
“This pandemic is forcing us to do so many things we wouldn’t have before, so I think we should take the opportunity to really, intentionally do them,” Dasgupta said.
The school board has seven publicly elected members, and one student member, elected by secondary MCPS students.
As debate about a countywide review of school boundaries was a dividing issue in the primary election, and, like the pandemic now, was the main point of debate. Many candidates said they ran because of the controversy surrounding the boundary analysis.
There were 18 school board candidates in the primary, including 13 people who ran for the at-large race. Harris finished first in the at-large race, Dasgupta finished second and Stephen Austin was third.
Evans won the District 4 primary, followed by Solomon. The third candidate, Ehren Park Reynolds withdrew from the race.
There was not a primary for the District 2 seat because only two candidates filed, less than the minimum of three needed to hold a primary. Both candidates advanced to the general election.
• Lynne Harris, Silver Spring: Harris is a former president of the MCCPTA. Her aim, if elected, would be to elevate the student voice in Montgomery County Public Schools’ decision-making processes, she said in an interview after filing as a candidate.
Harris teaches career programs at the Thomas Edison High School of Technology, is a nurse and is a former attorney. Harris was endorsed by The Washington Post.
She has advocated during her campaign for more mental health services for students and staff members, expanding regional advanced placement and international baccalaureate programs and improving communication with the community.
• Sunil Dasgupta, Silver Spring: Dasgupta is the program director for the political science program at the University of Maryland Baltimore County at The Universities at Shady Grove. He is chair of the Montgomery County Council of Parent Teacher Association’s Health and Wellness Committee.
In an interview with Bethesda Beat last year, Sunil said his platform was focused on strengthening bonds between teachers and families, hiring more teachers, staff and counselors and investing in student and staff members’ health and safety.
District 2 candidates
• Rebecca Smondrowski, Gaithersburg: Smondrowski, the incumbent in the race, is chair of the board’s Special Populations Committee and a member of the Policy Management Committee. She is also a member of the Communication and Stakeholder Engagement Committee.
Prior to joining the board, Smondrowski served as the legislative aide for then-state Sen. Roger Manno and was an active member of local and county parent-teacher associations. Smondrowski highlighted improvements in available data about student achievement as a key factor in her decision to pursue another term, she said in an interview last year. The new data will allow the board and MCPS staff to take a more targeted approach to address a nagging “achievement gap” between low-income students and their peers, she said.
• Michael Fryar, Gaithersburg: Fryar, an attorney and former elementary school teacher, said in an interview that his platform includes his position that all students should attend their neighborhood schools.
He also wants to figure out “why young men are no longer choosing college as an option and what we can do to stop that trend” and addressing issues “across the board” regarding gender, gender identity and mental health problems.
Fryar, who was endorsed by The Washington Post, has two children in MCPS.
District 4 candidates:
• Shebra Evans, Silver Spring: Evans is the incumbent in the District 4 race and the current board president. Evans was elected in 2016 and is a member of the board’s Strategic Planning Committee.
She is a former financial analyst. Evans has two daughters in MCPS.
When announcing her candidacy, Evans said she chose to run for a second term because she is “proud of the work we are doing to address disparities in student outcomes by closing gaps in opportunity and achievement.” She said “there is still work to do” and her experience would help improve the school district. Evans was endorsed by The Washington Post.
• Steve Solomon, Rockville: Solomon, a local radio show host, originally filed as a candidate in the at-large race, but switched to District 4 as the at-large field became more saturated.
Solomon is a lifelong Montgomery County resident.
His website lists priorities ranging from revising the school district’s policy on snow days to “keeping schools local” and ensuring all schools have basic services such as heat and functioning equipment. Solomon also highlights the need to “support all MCPS employees” and ensure the school district is “the premiere place you want to send your child to school.”
More information about the candidates is available in Bethesda Beat’s general election voters guide.
School board members receive a $25,000 annual salary, aside from the board president, who receives $29,000.
The deadline to register to vote was Oct. 13, but some residents are eligible for same-day registration during early voting and Election Day. Those residents were sent a letter from the state, notifying them of their eligibility to register.
Early voting begins Monday and runs until Nov. 2. There are 11 early-voting sites in the county.
Election Day is Nov. 3. There are 39 sites in the county for in-person voting.
Caitlynn Peetz can be reached at email@example.com