Six candidates are facing off on the Nov. 8 ballot in three contested races for Montgomery County school board, following a campaign season that has touched on budget issues, school construction and the achievement gap between white and minority students in a district where Hispanics recently have become the largest racial or ethnic group.
The candidates have crisscrossed the county, speaking at forums and mingling at community events — some arguing for change and new ideas, and others making a case for stability and experience.
All six candidates want to expand magnet and language-immersion programs in Montgomery, a flash point in recent months as the board considered a report that recommended changes to admission practices.
The three winners in the nonpartisan election will become part of an eight-member board that sets policy in Maryland’s largest school district and votes on a budget of more than $2.4 billion.
Jeanette Dixon, 67, a retired educator from Silver Spring who collected the most votes in a five-way primary and is making her first run for office. She was principal of Paint Branch High School for 12 years and White Oak Middle School for four years.
Dixon says her top priority is “being a good steward to the $2.46 billion that the taxpayers are contributing to educate our children.” She wants to eliminate waste, govern with transparency and seek public input on issues “before the board votes, not after.”
It’s also important, she said, to evaluate the effectiveness of school programs: “what’s working, what needs to be tweaked, and what needs to be jettisoned and is no longer meeting the needs of our kids.”
Dixon says that it’s time for a new voice on the board and that she is more in touch than other candidates with what is going on in schools “with what students need, what teachers need, what principals need.”
One way to start tackling the achievement gap: “a convocation of all stakeholders,” she said.
Dixon earned a bachelor’s degree at American University and a master’s degree at Loyola University in Maryland. Her two children graduated from county schools.
Phil Kauffman, 63, an incumbent seeking his third term, is a retired federal government lawyer from Olney who is married to a teacher and served in PTA positions for 13 years. A former board president and vice president, he is chairman of the board’s fiscal management committee.
Kauffman, the father of two graduates of the school system, says his top issue is the achievement gap. He supports Superintendent Jack Smith’s approach of using data to identify student progress and intervening early on.
Other issues Kauffman cites include lower class sizes, overcrowded school facilities and career education. As a board member, he said, he has pressed the district to calculate the return on investment for its programs so that “we spend our limited resources on programs that are actually effective and having an impact on student achievement.”
Kauffman, who earned a bachelor’s degree at the University of Pennsylvania and a law degree at the University of Maryland, said he should be reelected because of his experience and leadership. “I think stability on the board will be important, especially as we are working with a new superintendent.”
Brandon Rippeon, 44, who lives in Darnestown and has made unsuccessful bids for Congress and the County Council, owns a check-cashing and money transfer business in Gaithersburg and says he is passionate about working to improve education and literacy. He is a member of the Montgomery County Library Board.
Rippeon says his top issue is raising academic standards and expanding internship and vocational training programs. He disagrees with the board’s decision to get rid of final exams in high school courses and grading policy revisions that make it easier to get As.
He says he would push for budget transparency and action on items highlighted in a state audit, including bus routes that operate below capacity.
On the achievement gap, he said: “It’s about more than education. It involves social issues, cultural issues, political issues. . . . That’s why we need a comprehensive solution that involves the other side of the government, specifically HHS.”
A lifelong county resident, Rippeon graduated from Rollins College in Winter Park, Fla., and earned a master’s degree at the American University of Paris.
Rebecca Smondrowski, 48, an incumbent seeking a second term, lives in Gaithersburg and previously worked as a legislative aide to state Sen. Roger Manno (D-Montgomery). She was an officer of the Montgomery County Council of PTAs before joining the school board.
Smondrowski said her top issue is “making sure every child has the opportunity to have a complete and positive school experience. . . . We need to have a rigorous curriculum and make sure each student is not just college- but career-ready, and we need to make sure our students are engaged in school, have fun, and feel safe and secure.”
As chair of the board’s special populations committee, Smondrowski describes herself as a longtime advocate for students with special needs. She says communication and community outreach are high priorities, as is providing students with options such as internships, project-based learning and vocational education.
One step to help address the achievement gap: a four-year plan for students coming out of middle school, so they get what they need as they head toward college or career. Smondrowski, who attended West Chester University in Pennsylvania, is active with other organizations, including the county’s Domestic Violence Coordinating Council.
Shebra Evans, 44, a parent activist with a background in finance, is making a second bid for office after an unsuccessful race two years ago. She says she got involved when she saw lagging scores for her children’s school. “I wanted to make sure all of our schools are strong,” she said.
Her top issues are narrowing the achievement gap and creating more opportunities for career education so that students have “multiple career options” after high school. Evans also wants to focus on “engaging community partners” — such as businesses or nonprofit groups — to support the school system.
A co-leader of the district’s African American Student Achievement Action Group, she says she believes “the biggest thing is to make sure the policies we put in place create opportunities for students and ensure there are no unintended consequences.”
Evans, who earned her bachelor’s degree at Tennessee State University, started in PTA leadership positions in 2009 and later became an officer with the Montgomery County Council of PTAs. She has been active in other organizations, including the nonprofit Big Learning, and served on district-created budget work groups.
Anjali Reed Phukan, 38, who works as an auditor for the state, is making her second bid for public office. The daughter of a teacher, she said she wants to bring her financial background and her experiences in addiction recovery to her work on the board. As an Asian American, she also said she would be a voice for an underrepresented community.
Her platform: “Happy living is the most important thing.” She said she wants children to like coming to school, so she is an advocate for magnet programs, after-school activities and opening schools for student-led learning after school hours. She supports the idea of later high school start times — an issue of health and wellness, she said.
Of the achievement gap, she said: “I don’t want the bar lowered.” She said disadvantaged children could be helped by opening schools in the evenings so they could study.
Phukan earned her bachelor’s degree at what is now Trinity Washington University and received two master’s degrees, one in business administration from American University and another in information systems from University of Maryland, Baltimore County.