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Prince George’s school board forum highlights candidates’ visions

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One of the most closely watched races in the Prince George’s Board of Education election offered the most spirited exchange Tuesday night during a candidates’ forum at Prince George’s County Community College.

Incumbent Verjeana M. Jacobs (District 5), the board’s chairman, took the first shot by questioning her teenage challenger’s experience and ability to handle the job.

Raaheela Ahmed, a student at the University of Maryland at College Park, responded by questioning Jacobs’s record.

“I’m the only one qualified to do it,” Jacobs said as she rattled off her accomplishments, including a law degree.

Jacobs later said: “This job is very serious. It not time for on-the-job training.”

Ahmed, who wants to improve relations between the community and the school system, said that she has asked teachers and residents in the district what their board member can do for them. “They said, ‘I can’t answer that because I don’t feel the presence of the board member,’ ” Ahmed said.

Later, while answering a question about what she would tell parents who have left the system, Ahmed took another shot at Jacobs: “I wouldn’t have won the primary if folks didn’t feel like there was something lacking.”

All of the incumbents, except Edward Burroughs III (District 8), took second place in their primary runs.

Burroughs, who participated in the debate, told the crowd that his opponent, Andre Nottingham, had announced at a previous community forum that he was withdrawing from the race. Nottingham did not attend Tuesday’s event.

Nottingham said in a phone interview Wednesday that he is no longer vying for the position, but that it was too late to remove his name from the ballot.

“I still have the passion,” Nottingham said. “And I wanted to bring the appropriate experience to the board. But I realized that right now, I have to focus on my household.” Nottingham, an education consultant who previously worked at U-Md., said he is completing his doctorate.

About 100 people attended Tuesday night’s event, which was sponsored by a host of community organizations, including the Prince George’s branch of the NAACP. Candidates received questions about their decision to run, school leadership, the school budget, school reform and community outreach.

Newcomer Micah Watson said the number of people who attended — which some said was nearly twice the number who showed two years ago — was “a testament to the concern” residents have about the school system.

Watson tried to use the debate to distinguish himself from Patricia Eubanks (District 4), who is vying for her second term.

He said he is the only candidate with a child in the public school system.

While Eubanks said that she has a passion for children and what happens to them, Watson countered that, with a child in the schools, he is invested in them.

When asked what skills they would like to see in a new superintendent, Watson said he wants someone with a solid record and a vision. Eubanks said she wants someone who communicates well with the board, “has the strength to make the tough decisions and keeps improving student achievement.”

Zabrina Epps and David Murray are vying to fill the seat vacated by retiring board member Rosalind A. Johnson (District 1).

Both said they are concerned about college readiness.

Epps, an academic adviser at the Community College of Baltimore County , said she is running for the board because she has worked with too many students at the community college who have taken Advanced Placement courses in high school, only to realize that they are not prepared for college-level courses. She wants to improve achievement.

Murray, a student at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County, said that he has worked with parent-teacher associations in his district and wants to build better partnerships.

Curtis Valentine, the moderator, asked the candidates where they would suggest cuts be made in the budget — cuts that would not hurt student achievement.

Epps and Murray said that they could not suggest specific areas.

Murray said that he would vote to approve an external audit of the budget, as the NAACP has requested for years.

Epps said that there needs to be a thorough analysis of the budget but that she is worried about the cost of an audit. She suggested that county government staff members offer their assistance.

Henry P. Armwood Jr. (District 7), who is facing a challenge from Carletta Fellows, is vying for a second term. The incumbent said that he thinks the responsibility of a school board member is to hold the superintendent accountable for implementing the board’s vision and to listen to the community.

Fellows said a member’s role is to “ensure they set a vision for the school system, based on what the community wants.” She also said the responsibility involves fiduciary management of the $1.6 billion budget.

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