One Vacant Seat, Many Issues

By Daniel de Vise
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, February 7, 2008

A lone seat on the Board of Education is the only local choice facing Montgomery County voters in the primary election Tuesday.

Five candidates have stepped forward to seek the at-large seat of departing member Sharon W. Cox. Two of them, Philip Kauffman and Tommy Le, ran competitive races for school board seats in 2006. A third, Alies Muskin, has the crucial endorsement of the county teachers association. Two lesser-known candidates, Carey Apple and Rob Seubert, round out the field.

All registered voters can cast ballots in the nonpartisan race. The two candidates with the most votes advance to the general election.

Cox's seat is one of three on the eight-member board that are up for election this year. Longtime board member Steve Abrams faces a well-connected challenger, Laura Berthiaume, for a seat representing Rockville and Potomac, and both will appear on the November ballot. No one has challenged Christopher Barclay, who represents the eastern part of the county.

Kauffman, 55, of Olney put two daughters through Blake High School in Silver Spring while being active in the PTA. He has a law degree from the University of Maryland and works as deputy assistant general counsel in the federal Department of Veterans Affairs. In 2006, Kauffman ran against school board President Nancy Navarro, who represents the northeastern county, and collected 37 percent of the vote.

Le, 65, of Silver Spring, is a longtime PTA activist with two grown children who attended county schools. He has a doctorate in engineering sciences and works as a senior project manager at the Nuclear Regulatory Commission. Le ran against school board member Shirley Brandman for another at-large seat in 2006 and took 37 percent of the vote.

Muskin, 52, of Silver Spring is also a longtime PTA leader. Her daughters graduated from Einstein High School in Kensington. She did doctoral work at the City University of New York and is chief operating officer of the Anxiety Disorders Association of America.

Seubert, 40, of Silver Spring, is a former sixth-grade science teacher at White Oak Middle School who works as a loan officer. Apple, 52, of Germantown, is a recreation supervisor at an aquatic facility in Olney. He has a son at Clarksburg High School.

Muskin is considered to be the candidate to beat. In county school board elections, candidates endorsed by the Montgomery County Education Association tend to win.

But advocating for the teachers, in this election cycle, might prove tricky. The county is running a deficit, the real estate market has slowed and the school system will be hard-pressed to fund its labor agreement with the teachers, which provides annual increases of about 5 percent in three consecutive years. Funding the contract adds $75 million to the school system's $2.1 billion operating budget request for fiscal 2009 and accounts for most of the $121 million increase proposed by Superintendent Jerry D. Weast.

The teachers' contract is one of several areas that set the more outspoken Le apart from Kauffman and Muskin.

"That's the contract, and I would honor the contract," Muskin said. She explained that breaking the agreement would send teacher morale tumbling. Kauffman said the county must keep up with the generous pay scale in nearby Fairfax County, and with the cost of living. "We're all competing for a talent pool," he said.

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