October 31, 2012

SCHOOL BOARD RACES are generally low-key events, so it’s little surprise that the upcoming election for the Montgomery County Board of Education has largely operated under the public radar. Voters, though, would do well to pay attention. More than half of the county’s budget goes to the public schools, and questions about the priorities behind some recent financial decisions give urgency to electing sensible, independent-minded board members.

Tuesday’s nonpartisan election comes as top Montgomery officials are raising alarms about the school system’s decision to give two sets of raises (with the possibility of a third) to teachers. Few would dispute the need to compensate teachers generously. But the boost in salaries, which are already the area’s highest, comes at the expense of other needs, such as restoring lost staff positions or addressing class size. More critical is whether the raises are sustainable for a system that faces ever-rising pension costs and has to contend with a growing, and increasingly challenging, student population.

No one articulates the critical fiscal issues facing the system better than Morris Panner, an entrepreneur and lawyer who is challenging incumbent Phil Kauffman for the at-large seat. Mr. Panner’s efforts (sadly unsuccessful) to save a popular youth exercise program at his children’s elementary school opened his eyes to how lock-step policies and traditional thinking undermine smart outcomes. He understands the structural budget deficit that confronts the system, and unlike Mr. Kauffman, who once concocted the idea of the schools suing the county for more money, will be able to work with county officials on common-sense solutions that will enhance education without shortchanging other county needs.

Vying for the seat being vacated by incumbent Laura Berthiaume in District 2 (Rockville, Potomac, Gaithersburg) are Rebecca Smondrowski, longtime parent activist, and Fred Evans, a former Montgomery County principal. Both are knowledgeable, but Ms. Smondrowski’s work as a legislative aide in Annapolis gives her valuable insights into the system’s fiscal challenges, and her experience as a parent of children, including one with special needs, in the schools, would be a useful addition.

In District 4 (Silver Spring, Takoma Park), incumbent Christopher Barclay should be reelected over promising newcomer Annita Seckinger. We have differed with Mr. Barclay on his fiscal priorities, but his full-throated advocacy of the need to close the achievement gap that separates minority students gives the board a voice it cannot afford to lose.

All seats, including the District races, are subject to countywide votes.