ASPEN HILL — Facing audience questions, the seven candidates running for four Board of Education positions expressed few disagreements during a Thursday evening forum at the Aspen Hill Library.
“I want to make sure we’re good stewards of the money, and I’m also interested in pre-K,” said BOE candidate Brenda Wolff, who is running unopposed for the District 5 seat, in her opening statement to an audience of about 40 people. “I would like to know that the programs that we have are actually working.”
Moderated by Elliot Chapel and hosted by the Friends of the Aspen Hill Library, the forum featured audience questions, with candidates providing two-minute responses on issues ranging from the education budget, school safety and student busing, to classroom diversity.
Unlike the County Council, the Board of Education, which oversees Montgomery County Public Schools, consists of seven members elected to staggered four-year terms in nonpartisan elections. Five members are elected to represent districts, while two represent the county in an at-large capacity, with voters given the opportunity to select candidates for all the positions in a given election year.
Current board members Rebecca Smondrowski (District 2), Shebra Evans (District 4) and Jeanette Dixon (at-large) were elected in 2016 and are not facing election this year, while the other four seats are up for the 2018 election cycle.
Incumbents Judy Docca (District 1) and Patricia O’Neill (District 3) are facing challenges from Maria Blaeuer and Lynn Amano, respectively, while Wolff is running to replace retiring incumbent Michael Durso (District 5). At-large candidates Julie Reiley and Karla Silvestre are vying to succeed Jill Ortman-Fouse, who vacated the seat to run for the County Council.
Paul Pykosh, 52, filed to run to face Wolff for the District 5 seat but dropped out in May after relocating from the district.
Asked by Paul Bessel if they would support zero-based budgeting, all the candidates agreed the approach was not feasible with the system’s $2.6-billion budget and 206 schools.
“I don’t know that we can do zero-based budgeting when we have the influx of 1,000 to 2,500 kids we’ve had in the last 10 years,” said Docca, 79, who was first elected in 2006.
Amano, 52, a parent and education advocate, added that zero-based budgeting would not be applicable for certain parts of the MCPS budget such as construction, explaining she is “for responsible use of our money and making sure we’re not wasting money on programs.”
Silvestre, 46, also a parent and education advocate, said she would like to see zero-based budgeting at the state level to ensure the county gets “its fair share” of education funds.
Given the recent incidents of school violence across the country and student violence-related arrests in the county, all the candidates expressed support for funding current school security enhancement such as guided entrances.
Wolff, 66, a former Education Department official, said she would like to see the County participate in the registry to ensure background checks are performed on employees.
Reiley, 55, an attorney, added that she would like to see the Board of Education implement recommendations from the MCPS “Safety and Security At a Glance Reports,” such as implementing dashboards to monitor bullying and increasing storage capacity on school bus cameras in response to recent abuse incidents involving bus drivers.
A question on student busing also included responses related to magnet programs around the county.
O’Neill, 68, first elected to the board in 1998, said the school system is expanding the locations of magnet and advanced learning programs to reduce the need for busing students to other schools.
Recounting a personal story, Blaeuer, 42, said that it was more practical for her child, who attended the International Baccalaureate program at Richard Montgomery High School in Rockville, to take the Metrobus rather than the school bus provided by MCPS.
“Most jurisdictions that have a strong public transportation infrastructure partner with their public transportation infrastructure more than we do here at MCPS,” Blaeuer added.
None of the candidates provided a definitive answer about the issue of the future bus depot, which stood before the Board.
One of the audience members noted that the candidates interchanged the terms “integration” and “diversity” when posing a question about diversity among MCPS’s 161,546 students.
Reiley stated that whole school magnet and choice programs is a way to close the opportunity gap and not create a “school within a school.”
Docca noted that “desegregation” did not equate with “integration.”
“If integration were occurring, we would have more Latino and African-American students in gifted-and-talented programs,” Docca added. “We also wouldn’t be talking about the opportunity gap, because we would be providing programs for all our students no matter what backgrounds [and] what they bring to the schools.”
The election is on Tuesday, Nov. 6.