Montgomery County school board race: Candidates discuss learning loss, police

Ahead of the upcoming primary election, Montgomery County school board candidates discussed how they would address learning losses and mental health challenges seen since the pandemic began.

Like others around the country, the school system — Maryland’s largest, with roughly 159,000 students — is trying to recover after two school years that have included virtual learning, increased school violence, and teacher and staff shortages. Earlier this year, Montgomery County school administrators renewed an agreement with the county’s police department that would bring officers back in schools with a narrower and more defined role as “community engagement officers.” The plan has been controversial among some parents and families.

Against that backdrop, voters will choose candidates to fill four school board seats in the upcoming election: District 1, District 3, District 5 and the At-Large position. In total, 14 candidates are running for office in the primary election set for July 19. Early voting begins July 7.

The Washington Post posed questions to the candidates on a range of issues. Below are responses edited for brevity and clarity.

Alex Fahmy, 27, of Damascus, mentors students who want a career in sports, coordinates sports camps and coaches youth sports.

Top issues: Emphasis on parental rights in education, more transparency, eliminating mask mandates, emphasis on trade and financial literacy, need for police in schools

How would you help students recover from learning losses and mental health challenges seen during the pandemic?

Schools need to stay open for in-person learning; children learn best in a classroom setting. We need to focus on having children be more active. Focus on trades, coding classes, music and arts programs, and overall learning new skills.

What is your position on police in schools?

If the superintendent of Montgomery County Public Schools has security, then so should our children and teachers. I support police in schools.

How would you support retaining and recruiting educators?

Teacher salaries need to be based on the cost of living. We need to have an audit find spending cuts and reinvest that money in our teachers. I also want to implement signing bonuses for new hires, along with more incentives and step increases for seasoned teachers, and schedule one half-day each month.

Jay Guan, 36, cites his upbringing as a low-income ESOL student as providing a unique perspective in helping address the opportunity gap in the school system. He is a systems engineer who is active in the school system’s parent teacher association, as well as the Asian Pacific American Student Achievement Action Group. He lives in Clarksburg with his wife and son.

Top issues: Safe and effective operations, transparency, easy access to school data

How would you help students recover from learning losses and mental health challenges seen during the pandemic?

We need to expand the availability of year-round school/summer school and tutoring to those most in need. We do need mental health professionals and to adequately staff school wellness centers. We can expand our recruitment to mental health professionals who are working to fulfill supervised internship/clinical hours for their licensure. Lastly, we need to include mental health support personnel in each school’s staff assignment and planning.

What is your position on police in schools?

I am in support of the community engagement officers. School safety requires comprehensive solutions that include the police, mental health professions, social workers and much more. It is not an either/or between police and mental health support.

How would you support retaining and recruiting educators?

We need to pay commensurate salaries for the jobs that they perform, and accord the respect that professionals [like them] deserve.

Grace Rivera Oven, 53, is the founder and chief executive of UpCounty Hub, a nonprofit that tackles food insecurity in upper Montgomery County. She is a Germantown resident and has been a community advocate for roughly 35 years, including running an after-school program for high-risk youth. She is an MCPS graduate and had three children in the system.

Top issues: School safety, expansion of mental health and wraparound services, closure of the opportunity gap, and ending lunch debt with free school meals for all

How would you help students recover from learning losses and mental health challenges seen during the pandemic?

We need to close the opportunity gap, meaning the focus needs to be on our students who are not doing well academically in schools that are Title 1. We must ensure that we work with families, while making sure the same opportunities to take Advanced Placement classes and get internships are available. Transportation should not be a barrier for these students, especially for after-school activities. We need to ensure access to counseling, and any barriers are overcome so that our most vulnerable youth can take advantage of our health programs.

What is your position on police in schools?

As someone who has worked in the state attorney’s office and ran an after-school program for high-risk youth, I understand where parents and the majority of teachers and administrators are coming from. However, having school resource officers in our schools is not the magic answer to keeping our students safe. We need to invest in after-school programs, counselors, restorative justice practitioners and behavior specialists.

How would you support retaining and recruiting educators?

Our current teachers, paraeducators and support staff need to have their needs and concerns heard so they are motivated to stay, and we must work to establish the resources every educator requires to foster an environment that cultivates new staff members.

Esther Wells, 35, is a certified public accountant specializing in corporate taxes. She cites her background in professional finance among her qualifications for a role on the board. She has tutored students in MCPS and seeks to elevate the voices of the most vulnerable populations. She lives in Gaithersburg with her two sons.

Top issues: Recovery from disrupted education, student and staff mental health, mistrust between the community and MCPS

How would you help students recover from learning losses and mental health challenges seen during the pandemic?

My plan is to refocus MCPS on core subjects such as math, comprehension and reading. Offer Saturday school, night school and summer school to students that need additional support. Allow teachers more time to teach and reduce the level of testing that we currently offer our students.

MCPS has a robust offering of mental health services, support and community resources available for students and teachers such as student support groups. Normalize seeking therapy and give everyone the attention they need to be okay. We need to ensure that students have a trusted adult who will listen and act appropriately in response to what they are saying.

What is your position on police in schools?

The new [community engagement officer] program should be more comprehensive to include partnerships and responsibilities to all stakeholders. Prevention is key. We need to ensure ALL schools are safe and secured at all times. MCPS needs to invest in technology and professionals to identify threats to our community early and disarm them discretely. Inspire students through leadership initiatives to speak up and speak out against bullying and threats. Engage with parents and families for repeat incidents of fights in school. Apply wraparound services to get to the root cause/issue to then support the student and family.

How would you support retaining and recruiting educators?

Listen to the concerns of our current MCPS teachers, paraeducators and support staff. Create a pipeline of diverse high school and college students to enter the field of teaching by providing subsidies and incentives throughout their education journey to certification. Invest in a mentoring program where experienced teachers and first-year teachers can discuss best practices, have a safe space to voice concerns and receive support as they navigate our school system. Increase substitute teacher pay, ensure adequate planning periods, provide work-life balance.

Marcus Alzona, 50, is a computer scientist in Bethesda who says the board needs a member who understands the potential and limitations of technology and who can provide guidance for STEM education and school infrastructure.

Top issues: Keeping schools open and safe, having common-sense voices for parents on the school board and proper and effective use of technology for STEM and curriculum transparency

How would you help students recover from learning losses and mental health challenges seen during the pandemic?

MCPS was one of the last schools to reopen and the effect on our students was severe, hurting poor and minority children the most. Montgomery County needs school board members who will push back on reflexive school closures not backed by the science. Innovative approaches utilizing technology must be utilized to help with student learning loss, while simultaneously providing parents with curriculum transparency.

What is your position on police in schools?

We must listen to our principals, who unanimously want school resource officers in MCPS schools. The board must stop portraying police as a problem and return to viewing the police as a partner in keeping our schools safe.

How would you support retaining and recruiting educators?

Education is essential work, and our teachers, paraeducators and support staff need to be paid accordingly. The school board gave our teachers only a 3.35 percent cost-of-living raise, yet gave the superintendent a $368,000 compensation package, a $73,000 increase — a slap in the face to all of the front-line teachers who have worked hard over the past year. We need to fund teachers, not executives.

Incumbent Scott Joftus, 54, is a co-founder and president of FourPoint Education Partners, which helps school boards and superintendents improve outcomes for students, especially those who are underrepresented. He teaches courses for master’s students in education policy at George Washington University. He lives in Bethesda.

Top issues: Improve engagement of and communication with stakeholders, addressing the lost learning time resulting from the pandemic, student and staff mental health

How would you help students recover from learning losses and mental health challenges seen during the pandemic?

Continuing to invest in mental health professionals, tutoring, after school and summer school, pre-K, and higher salaries for educators and staff; and increasing investments for “community schools,” which is an approach to providing health and social services at the school site.

What is your position on police in schools?

We must ensure that underrepresented students are not unfairly disciplined or arrested. I support the transition from school resource officers to Community Engagement Officers. Schools will still have access to police officers in cases of illegal activity, violence or potential violence, but police officers will not maintain a constant presence in our schools and will be trained to act appropriately in appropriate situations. Also support significant budget increases for mental health services and wellness centers.

How would you support retaining and recruiting educators?

The Maryland Blueprint, which I strongly support, requires school districts to increase the salaries of teachers, which we’ve done this year, with more forthcoming. We also need to make sure that MCPS is providing high-quality support to principals to help them create school cultures that are welcoming, supportive and academically engaging. For recruiting, we need to continue to “grow your own,” through career pathway initiatives at high schools and incentives for paraprofessionals and other professionals to become teachers.

Julie Yang, 52, of Potomac, has a long career in education, including 11 years with the Montgomery County school system, where she has previously worked as a college and career counselor. She resigned in December to run for the board and says her deep knowledge of the system and of the needs of the community make her qualified for the position.

Top issues: Student and staff mental health, staff recruitment and retention, and mitigation of pandemic learning disruption

How would you help students recover from learning losses and mental health challenges seen during the pandemic?

Have a student-centered mental health approach by asking our students what they most need and allow time and space for our students and staff to build relationships. Also take a proactive [approach] and have mental health as a permanent agenda item for the board, and gradually decrease the student-to-counselor/psychologist ratio to provide more individualized service.

When addressing the learning gap, targeted summer school, and tutoring services, are needed. We also need a closer partnership with the families.

What is your position on police in schools?

We need mental health support, collaboration with MCPD and strong relationships. Police in schools are not to be involved in student discipline, but to address crime, and build trusted relationships with the school community. We need to have periodic reviews of how the program is working.

How would you support retaining and recruiting educators?

Build stronger partnerships with universities and local community groups to attract and diversify our workforce. For retention, better training and support at the local school level. Allow time and space for educators to exchange ideas, collaborate and build a strong community.

Valerie Coll, 61, is a recently retired teacher from MCPS. Her experience as a teacher has made her well-versed in the system, she said. She lives in Colesville.

Top issues: Transparency, communication, oversight

How would you help students recover from earning losses and mental health challenges seen during the pandemic?

I support the wellness centers as outlined by MCPS. Elementary students, however, have traditionally been given the short end of the stick when it comes to addressing mental health needs. We must follow guidelines to improve the ratio of counselors to students and we have to stop the practice of having counselors serve as “teacher in charge” if administrators are out of the building or to cover classes in case of absences.

This lack of counseling in real time for students at all levels is also a reason for the gaps in learning. MCPS dropped the ball in jumping back into academic programming without first assessing where students were in their social and emotional health.

What is your position on police in schools?

I am curious and interested to see how the SRO 2.0 program will actually function. I am in favor of the [board of education] requesting specific details on how MCPS security staff is hired, trained and effective in schools and across the system. I would like to see our school security staff work with the office of staff development and with MCPS counselors at all levels to better focus on building relationships and monitoring student behaviors.

How would you support retaining and recruiting educators?

We have to build a better pipeline of students wanting to teach here at MCPS. Expand infant and child development programs at high schools in partnership with local universities to increase enrollment in teacher degree programming. We need to offer increased opportunities for staffers as participants in programs that already exist for them to become teacher-certified through a compacted program with local universities. We also need to improve the salary scale for teachers and substitutes. The school board has to direct MCPS to improve its human resources department and stop appointing former administrators who are not HR experts to positions of executive administration.

Dawn Iannaco-Hahn, 47, works for the Montgomery County Department of Health and Human Services as a therapist for the Infant and Early Childhood Mental Health Support Services program. She lives in Silver Spring with her husband and two middle-school-age sons. She plans to bring her experience as a parent, advocate and mental health expert to the board.

Top issues: Increased mental health services and supports, improved pay and incentive programs for staff, addressing significant educational disruption, career readiness, quality career and technical education programs

How would you help students recover from learning losses and mental health challenges seen during the pandemic?

MCPS needs to create a comprehensive school mental health program modeled after the National Center for School Mental Health. MCPS needs to build on its partnerships with local mental health agencies to be able to provide therapeutic services in all school buildings. MCPS also needs a better social/emotional curriculum that is more relevant and relatable.

MCPS needs to offer intensive, in-person tutoring services after school and on weekends and to offer more robust Saturday and summer school programming to all students at every grade level. Students with [Individualized Education Programs] need the compensatory services they are legally entitled.

What is your position on police in schools?

We need to give the power back to the principals because they know their school community and its needs best. Officers in schools should not be involved in any disciplinary actions. We need to work on building relationships between school counselors, social workers and psychologists and any police or security placed in a school.

How would you support retaining and recruiting educators?

Updating and modernizing job requirements/descriptions to attract highly qualified people, changing hiring protocols and salary guidelines, create more incentive programs, better pay for staffers.

Incumbent Brenda Wolff, 69, is a retiree from the U.S. Department of Education. Her experience as a trained attorney, she said, has given her analytical skills that have supported the school board’s oversight role. Her daughter is a teacher and her grandson a student in MCPS. She currently serves as the school board’s president. She resides in Silver Spring.

Top issues: Social and emotional learning, mental health, pre-K opportunities, closing the opportunity gap, strategic use of funds

How would you help students recover from learning losses and mental health challenges seen during the pandemic?

I have championed the use of out-of-school time to extend learning. Having tutoring available after school and making summer school more available to students who need it is one way learning gaps are being addressed, along with increasing enrollment in Saturday school.

Perhaps the most important strategy for mitigating learning loss is through classroom instruction. Supporting student and staff mental health in an environment conducive to learning requires a multi-tiered approach. I have supported having a menu of mental health supports, including teletherapy.

What is your position on police in schools?

Balancing the interests of students — many of whom have experienced problematic encounters with the police — with the police role in securing the over 208 campuses requires a willingness to take positions that please neither side. I am committed to continue working with [the police department] to provide officers serving our schools professional development on issues such as adolescent development, de-escalation, restorative justice and antiracism that they need.

How would you support retaining and recruiting educators?

I am aware that money and benefits alone will not solve the problem, but it does help us compete with surrounding jurisdictions. I have also championed our “grow your own” initiative, where we work with high school students who are interested in teaching, staying in touch with them throughout college, and offering internships and student teaching so that when they have their credentials they want to return to MCPS.

Mike Erickson did not respond to questions.

Michael Fryar, 53, an attorney representing children and adults with education and mental health issues, started his career as a classroom teacher in Connecticut. He lives in Gaithersburg and has two children in middle school.

Top issues: Focusing on core learning concepts and providing support both in and after school for students to recover from pandemic learning losses; curriculum transparency and school choice by expanding magnet programs; creating theme schools; and introducing charter schools in the county.

How would you help students recover from learning losses and mental health challenges seen during the pandemic?

Curriculum needs to be refocused on core essential skills with in-school and after-school help. Home services need to be expanded to support all families, particularly our most marginalized. We need in-school mental health supports, beginning with classroom teacher support and training.

What is your position on police in schools?

We need CEOs in schools because they serve as a source of information for issues occurring within the community, reported by responsible students who want to remain safe. MCPS has in-school gang issues that have created multiple incidents of violence and crime and may well have led to the Magruder [High] School shooting. Ignoring this reality is putting children in harm’s way.

How would you support retaining and recruiting educators?

Reduce the amount of testing. The average fifth-grade teacher in Montgomery County spends one out of five days in the school year dealing with test prep, testing and post-test data collection.

More administrative support for discipline. Teachers are spending an inordinate amount of time focusing on a few children with discipline issues.

More preparation time. When I was a teacher, I had a lunch time for meals and a separate planning time that was specifically to reset the classroom and prepare for the rest of the day’s lessons. Now lunch and planning periods are filled with meetings, trainings and other useless time wasters.

J “Domenic” Giandomenico, 42, is a political consultant who has worked on education and workforce development legislation and policy for several organizations. He is the full-time caretaker of his two children, one of whom was diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder.

Top issues: Learning loss after covid, teacher burnout, stronger measures of accountability and equity, retaining and recruiting teachers

How would you help students recover from learning losses and mental health challenges seen during the pandemic?

My team-teaching plan is designed for providing students with more direct instruction in an efficient and equitable manner. Team teaching distributes our best teachers to more students and supports them with less-experienced teachers. The experienced teacher focuses solely on instruction, while the junior teacher handles classroom management.

Regarding mental health care, there is no substitute for hiring trained professionals, and we have to do whatever it takes to make that happen.

What is your position on police in schools?

Children cannot learn if they don’t feel safe, and we must take all steps necessary to ensure that protection — that includes bringing police officers back into schools and implementing much stronger accountability throughout MCPS. I share the many concerns and apprehensions over having a police presence in schools. Our only option for keeping students safe is to bring back good government, regain the public’s trust and reestablish consent of the governed.

How would you support retaining and recruiting educators?

My team-teaching plan will relieve teacher burnout. I want to make MCPS wages exempt from county income tax, give all MCPS employees priority access for county programs (such as affordable housing) and add a designated seat on the board of education for teachers.

Incumbent Karla Silvestre, 49, is a director of community engagement at Montgomery College. She is the current vice president of the school board. She is an educator with experience in STEM, teaching English as a second language, and with at-risk youth. She also is a MCPS parent and lives in Silver Spring.

Top issues: High expectations for all students, recruiting the best and diverse teacher talent through a “grow your own” program, providing accessible mental health support to all students

How would you help students recover from learning losses and mental health challenges seen during the pandemic?

Students need to be in school every day of the school year, receiving instruction in a high-quality curriculum from a highly qualified teacher. Students that need additional help should receive tutoring or participate in summer school. We have created a wide array of mental health supports this school year, and I will ensure that these services are reaching the students that need them the most.

What is your position on police in schools?

Police officers are needed to respond to violent crimes and weapons in schools. At every high school, we need social workers, mental health services, restorative justice and youth development so we can focus on preventing students from engaging in high-risk behaviors and avoiding serious incidents. And we need to ensure that the unequal treatment of Black and Brown students is not perpetuated in our schools.

How would you support retaining and recruiting educators?

We must strive to have a workforce that reflects our community, and we can do that through a “grow your own” program that supports interested MCPS graduates to go into education and return to work in MCPS. We must better market our competitive salaries, support for new teachers and generous benefits packages.

https://www.washingtonpost.com/education/2022/07/06/montgomery-county-school-board-election-candidates/ Montgomery County school board race: Candidates discuss learning loss, police

Dustin Huang

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