As the Montgomery County Council continues to question the school system’s spending decisions, control over the $2 billion annual operating budget remains one of the top issues for the new Board of Education to be seated after the Nov. 6 election.
Six candidates are vying for the three board spots on the ballot this year, and candidates have been tackling subjects ranging from school safety to special education to class sizes in one of Maryland’s premier school districts. Yet money, and how the school system uses it, continues to dominate the discussion as the region recovers from recession.
“How do we make our great schools greater, and how do we sustain what we’ve got in the face of some very ugly budget realities?” said Morris Panner, who is running against incumbent Phil Kauffman for one of the board’s at-large seats.
Panner, who runs an information technology company and has four children in Montgomery elementary schools, has been skeptical of the status quo, saying that a change on the board is necessary. But Kauffman, who was first elected to a four-year term in 2008, said the county’s public school system is already successful and needs to remain on the same track.
“I don’t think we need to be making significant changes,” said Kauffman, a deputy assistant general counsel with the Department of Veterans Affairs. “We need to focus on the areas that aren’t working, but that’s something the board has been doing.”
The Montgomery County Office of Legislative Oversight released a report this month analyzing the county budget after the Maryland General Assembly changed the state’s “maintenance of effort” law for public school systems. The law requires the county to maintain the same spending on education per pupil from year-to-year. If costs increase one year, the schools must maintain that level of funding in future years.
The report also focuses on teacher raises that the board granted last year, which bumped spending by $65 million. County officials say that fiscal burden will endure for years.
The eight-member Board of Education is the policymaking body for the school system, the 17th largest school district in the nation with nearly 150,000 students. Members represent five districts across the county — designed to ensure geographical diversity — with two additional at-large positions and a nonvoting student member elected by secondary-school students.
Rebecca Smondrowski is running against Fred Evans for the District 2 seat now held by Laura Berthiaume, who is stepping down. Smondrowski and Evans say that developing trust between the County Council and the Board of Education will be an important task.
“We need to sit down with the [County Council] and discuss what it is that we’re doing and give them a little bit more of a heads-up,” Smondrowski said.
Evans said it will be important to conduct an “extensive examination” of the budget. “Are we running programs that aren’t relevant to the basics of what’s going on in schools and what’s going on in those classrooms every day?” he said. “Are there ways we should be readjusting budgets to lower class size?”
Evans worked as a teacher and school administrator in Montgomery for 30 years and is an adjunct professor at George Mason University, and he has been touting that experience during his campaign. He has a daughter in 10th grade at Thomas S. Wootton High School.
Smondrowski has been playing Evans’s experience against him.
“We have two retired principals on our board already,” said Smondrowski, a legislative aide and special assistant to State Sen. Roger Manno (D-Montgomery). “But what we have a vacancy of is a mother with young children in the school system — someone who has been volunteering in the community and the classrooms.” Smondrowski has a son in high school and a daughter in middle school in Montgomery.
In the District 4 race, Annita Seckinger is challenging incumbent Christopher Barclay, the board’s full-time vice president. Seckinger said her top priorities are school safety — including adding more school resource officers as well as preventing bullying — and sustainability, although she said she also worries about spending and budget transparency.
“I think, frankly, you can’t spend too much on kids,” said Seckinger, who works with school systems to teach about nutrition and the environment. “But I have concerns not knowing how the spending is happening.”
Barclay, who has a child in public school in the county, has said that if he is elected to another four years on the board, he would focus on eliminating the achievement gap and work on improving the board’s engagement with students, families and the community.