March 27, 2012

MONTGOMERY COUNTY’S April 3 primary for board of education is unusually lively, with a crowded field of candidates with strong and varied backgrounds. That’s good, because the high-quality school system faces serious challenges.

The central issue is how to meet higher academic expectations for a growing, diverse student population, stretching across every income level. It is a task made harder by Montgomery’s unsettled finances, which have pitted the school board against county government in a bitter battle over what’s affordable. The state’s effort to prevent counties from cutting education spending and to shift teacher pension costs to local jurisdictions will exacerbate those tensions.

The primary, for which early voting is underway, will advance two candidates to the general election for an at-large seat and two for the District 2 seat. The District 4 seat is also up for election this year, but the two candidates in that race, incumbent Christopher Barclay and Annita Seckinger, will automatically appear on the November ballot. The races are nonpartisan, so all registered voters may participate, casting a ballot for one candidate in each race. Even candidates running from districts are elected countywide.

In the at-large race, incumbent Phil Kauffman is being challenged for a second term by three candidates. Mr. Kauffman has been a hardworking member of the board, but we are endorsing Morris Panner because his clear-eyed view of the system’s structural budget deficit is needed. Mr. Panner recognizes that current benefit programs are unsustainable, and he is thoughtful and forthright about the need to revisit how teachers are compensated in ways that recognize the reality of today’s career paths. By contrast, it was Mr. Kauffman who came up with the ill-advised idea of schools possibly suing the county council to get more money. An entrepreneur and lawyer, Mr. Panner understands how innovation can improve organizations; he argues for more discretion and accountability at the school level. With four children in public school, Mr. Panner would bring valuable perspective as a parent.

Five candidates are vying in District 2, which covers Rockville, Potomac and Gaithersburg, for a seat being vacated by Laura Berthiaume. Strong candidates include Fred Evans, a longtime educator and former Montgomery principal; Jeanne Ellinport, a public affairs consultant and school advocate; and former House delegate Saqib Ali. Susan Byrne, a newcomer to the county, also is running. But the most appealing candidate, by virtue of her hands-on work in the schools and community over the last decade, is Rebecca K. Smondrowski. A leader with the Montgomery County Council of Parent-Teacher Associations, Ms. Smondrowski has keen insights into the issues that affect students and teachers and, as the mother of a child with special needs, particular knowledge of special education and a special interest in stopping bullying. Her work as a legislative aide in Annapolis gives her valuable perspective on fiscal matters and could help the board repair tattered relations with county officials. She promises to be an independent voice.