We love our schools, but they still have a long way to go.
That’s the main message Board of Education candidates sent as they debated the achievement gap, balancing budgetary needs and technology Monday night. In answers restricted to a minute or less, the eight candidates for four seats – at large and districts 1, 3 and 5 – responded to questions for a full house. Although candidates run by district, voters throughout the county can vote for all seats on Nov. 4.
In tackling a number of questions on the achievement gap and diversity, all candidates seemed to agree that one size does not fit all.
“We want to get away from that dichotomy of having good schools and bad schools,” said Kristin Trible, who is running against incumbent Judy Docca for district 1.
Equity has been a major focus for Docca, who worked in Montgomery County Public Schools for 38 years and is now ending her second term on the board.
“We know that we have slipped backward in terms of diversity in classrooms and in our system,” Docca said. “We used to have about 17 percent of our teachers were African-American, and now 11 percent. It’s shocking to me. We have to do a better job…It’s always a good thing for students to see someone like himself or herself (as a teacher).”
How to make that happen was a more difficult question.
Jill Ortman-Fouse and Shebra Evans, competitors for the at-large seat, both pointed to success stories in their own communities.
Evans said when parents stick around and believe in children, it can turn a school around – just as it did with Highland Elementary School in Silver Spring, which in five years went from a low fifth grade reading proficiency to winning a National Blue Ribbon.
Ortman-Fouse said well-trained staff was the key for a Title I school in her neighborhood.
“It makes a difference how many people you have in the building who are trained who can do the work,” she said.
In defense of the board’s current actions, Vice President and district 3 incumbent Patricia O’Neill said the upcoming budget includes about $200,000 to examine school choice and address de facto segregation.
Laurie Halverson, challenger for district 3, and Larry Edmonds, challenger for district 5, suggested the focus should be on professional development within the schools and community engagement for families in the area.
The discussion later shifted to the role of technology in schools, where candidates like district 5 incumbent Michael Durso were careful to say technology could never replace well-trained teachers.
“We need to be very careful in (providing for) our communities where the access at home does not match with what may be available at school,” Durso said. “We have a fairly ambitious program that’s underway now with Chromebooks. We’re talking about bring your own device. That still is a tool for the teacher. I don’t think anything is going to replace a well-trained, well-motivated sensible teacher.”
Halverson called the purchase of Promethean Activboards, interactive whiteboards, as a mistake that has quickly become obsolete.
“MCPS needs to make smart decisions,” Halverson said. “The Promethean boards were nice when they first started, but I think they’re already outdated…A flat screen TV now can do just about the same thing and probably (is) much less expensive.”
Halverson said she also did not support putting Chromebooks in schools because they are not compatible with MAP tests used to measure proficiency in math and reading. MCPS is rolling out 40,000 Chromebooks in schools this year.
Trible, director of student support at the nonprofit FutureLink, said she has seen Chromebooks in action when she teaches students to use them to format resumes and other documents.
In another question from the audience, candidates discussed how they would balance curriculum needs and interests with a restricted budget.
O’Neill said the operating budget has been a challenge for the board in the past six years, but evaluating programs is vital.
“MCPS has been using a zero-base budgeting approach, every year rebuilding our budget,” O’Neill said. “We have to fight in Annapolis to make sure we have the resources we need coming from the state.”
Edmonds later responded to the same question by talking about his experience advocating in Annapolis for funding, which is also where he said efforts should lie.
Halverson and Ortman-Fouse took their answers in a different direction, criticizing the last-minute curriculum adjustments teachers have had to make in recent years as MCPS implements Curriculum 2.0 in each grade.
“We’ve got to have it ready when teachers need to use it. We have been flying the plane while we are trying to build it,” Ortman-Fouse said. “How are teachers supposed to effectively teach a curriculum when they’re not getting any time to know the direction of the course? It’s happening again with geometry this year.”
Training for teachers came back into the conversation with Durso, who advocated for support for teachers at the school and central levels.
Docca said she wants to increase the 2.8 percent of the current budget that’s used for teacher training and keep programs that show students different options for their future.
None of the candidates mentioned the Common Core standards except Trible, who said in passing she was in favor of them.
The challengers to incumbents also participated in a forum on Tuesday night without incumbents present. Monday’s forum, sponsored by the League of Women Voters and Montgomery County Council of Parent-Teacher Associations, will be broadcast in October on Montgomery Community Media channel 21. For more information on the candidates, visit vote411.org.