Montgomery school board race focuses on achievement gap and accountability issues

The long ballot for Tuesday’s primary in Montgomery County includes just one Board of Education race: to fill the at-large seat of Shirley Brandman, who is stepping down.

Montgomery’s eight-member board makes policy for a sprawling district with 151,000 students and a $2.3 billion operating budget. Voters will consider four candidates, with the top two vote-getters advancing to November’s general election.

All four have children who attend or have graduated from Montgomery County Public Schools. Three are parent advocates who have held PTA leadership roles: Shebra Evans, 42, of Silver Spring; Merry Eisner-Heidorn, 56, of Potomac; and Jill Ortman-Fouse, 50, of Silver Spring. Edward Amatetti, 55, of North Potomac taught for seven years and is now in finance.

In their literature and on the campaign trail, the candidates talk about community engagement, transparency, budget accountability and relief for crowded schools.

Some also want an overhaul of rules governing credit cards issued by the board, a recent flashpoint after concern about unauthorized charges.

But, as in other Montgomery campaigns this year, the student achievement gap is a touchstone. Candidates say more needs to be done to make progress on gaps between students of different races and income levels.

A recent county oversight report concluded that county efforts to close the divide in performance between high-poverty and low-poverty high schools have not worked. The gap was the focus of a march by students in the spring and a report this week on factors in Latinos’ high drop-out rates.

“If we were closing the achievement gap, I would just drop out of the race and do something else,” Amatetti told an audience in Bethesda. In an interview, he said he was successful in closing the gap among students he taught in Montgomery, Prince George’s and the District. He said he it takes strong classroom management, high expectations and hard work — “almost like a basketball coach.”

Eisner-Heidorn, who works in marketing and operations for a trade e-newsletter, said that all elected officials need to work together to find ways to maximize community resources to help African American and Hispanic students as well as those in poverty and those with special needs. “I don’t think there is one gap,” she said. “I think there are many gaps.”

Evans, a stay-at-home parent who has worked in finance, says she is co-leading a work group, created by the school district, on African American student’s performance, exploring early intervention, cultural competency training for employees and possible unintended consequences of district policies. “I think if we all partner and work together, it will make a difference,” she said.

To Ortman-Fouse, an organizational development consultant, the issue requires “practical strategies,” such as smaller class sizes, additional planning time for teachers, more bilingual staff workers and expanded partnerships between home and school. She said some schools have programs that give students extra help, but she’s also heard of students on waiting lists. “We need places for kids to go,” she said.

Donna St. George writes about education, with an emphasis on Montgomery County schools.
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