Come December, Montgomery County's Board of Education will have three new members, new ideas on the agenda and maybe even a new way of doing business.
Two of the three, Valerie Ervin and Stephen N. Abrams, were elected Nov. 2. A third new member will be appointed by the board to replace Henry Lee, a Derwood dentist who represented District 5, which includes Olney, Brookeville and Burtonsville, and resigned citing family concerns. The board is scheduled to vote on a replacement during a special meeting Nov. 20.
Ervin, a minority advocate who won the District 4 Silver Spring seat, anticipates a livelier board when she takes office -- one that is more productive, more effective at communicating with special needs communities and more independent from Superintendent Jerry D. Weast.
Throughout her campaign, Ervin voiced concerns about "gifted/talented" and "special needs" labels, which she says lead to the lowering of expectations for black and other minority students. Now that she has been elected, Ervin said one of her first priorities will be to voice the concerns of such traditionally underrepresented communities.
"My campaign was about bringing important issues to the table that are not normally covered in the public discourse," she said.
She and Abrams, newly elected to the District 2 Rockville-Potomac seat, plan to shake things up a little in the otherwise staid, deliberate and amicable body.
"We're going to bring debate," said Ervin, 47, chief of staff for County Council member George L. Leventhal (D-At Large.) "That's something that's been missing a lot of times in the past."
Abrams, who defeated incumbent Walter Lange in last week's election, echoes Ervin's plans to bring a less mainstream voice to board proceedings. And he has a list of priorities for his first months in office.
Among them, he wants to make the board more effective by having it reconsider the time demands put on individual members. He wants shorter, more effective meetings, which he says will help increase productivity. And he wants to rid board members' schedules of many time commitments -- all eight members visit with cluster communities, for example -- which he says are done more for procedure's sake than for the benefit of the school system.
Board Vice President Patricia O'Neill, who worked with Abrams on the board in the past, is optimistic if skeptical. O'Neill said she is looking forward to having Abrams back but isn't sure much will change when the new members are sworn in Dec. 1.
"I have to say Steve is one of the smartest board members I know, but we definitely don't always agree on everything," O'Neill said. "To do the job well, to really understand what's going on requires a great deal of time. Making changes to the way the board operates is difficult to reconcile with community expectations."
Having served two non-consecutive terms previously, 1992-96 and 1998-2002, Abrams said he is in a special position to help the board remember its past actions and evaluate its future ones.
"I have evolved from being a rookie outsider, which I was in my first term, to an engaged but distant player in my second term, to now becoming the institutional memory of the board," said Abrams, 61, counsel for Meyers-Meighan Wealth Management Group.
Sharon W. Cox, 51, the board president, was reelected to an at-large seat for a second term.
A common theme through the campaign was criticism of the board's relationship with Weast. The six candidates all were quick to praise Weast's leadership, but several, including Abrams and Ervin, suggested the school board ought to challenge the superintendent more often, if for no other reason than to keep him accountable and sharp.
Abrams said he's "hopeful that my presence and Valerie's also will keep him on his game, and that he's going to be able to reinforce some of his arguments."
Aggie Alvez, a spokesman for the superintendent, said Weast thinks the current level of give-and-take is stimulating and sufficient. He is "looking forward to working with the new board members and looking forward to more of the back-and-forth exchange he currently has," she said. "He doesn't expect that to change."
But Ervin and Abrams said they are determined to spice up the board's relationship with the superintendent.
"Whenever you elect new members who have been very outspoken in the past, that tends to balance out the need for board to have its own independent voice," Ervin said.