The persistent academic achievement gap in Montgomery County schools is a perennial issue, and this year’s election is no exception.
But the five Board of Education candidates on the April primary ballot are also focused on lowering class sizes across the fast-growing school system, and they take varied views on a proposed county property-tax increase that would steer more money toward education.
The top two vote-getters in the non–partisan race will move on to the general election. The candidates for the at-large seat are:
Jeanette Dixon, 67, a retired high school principal from Silver Spring, who is joining the political fray after a 30-year career as an educator. For 12 years, she was principal of Paint Branch High School in Burtonsville.
Dixon says transparency in decision-making is a priority and that more openness was needed as the school board recently selected a new superintendent. “I would’ve liked to have seen three finalists brought to the community, and the community could have weighed in on it,” she said.
If elected, she would push for a stronger board role in overseeing the superintendent and the budget process. Another priority is reducing class sizes, she said, recalling the progress made by an algebra teacher she supervised who had a small class.
“She had personal time with every student at their desk.”
Dixon said she questions the need for a tax increase in Montgomery County to generate more money for schools, and wants to take a closer look at programs and funding. “But I feel if the schools are going to be shortchanged in any way that yes, we should have a tax increase,” she said.
She earned a bachelor’s degree at American University and a master’s degree at Loyola University in Maryland. Her two children graduated from Montgomery Couty public schools.
Mike Ibañez, 57, is making his third try for a school board seat. Ibañez is the director of religious education at the Army’s Fort Drum in New York. He spends four to five days a week on the job, then returns to his home in Montgomery Village.
Ibañez worked more than 25 years as a teacher and principal, mostly in Catholic schools, and has three children who are graduates of Montgomery County public schools. He earned a bachelor’s degree at University of Maryland and a master’s at Loyola Marymount University in Los Angeles.
He says his chief concern is the achievement gap, which he believes could be eliminated in five years. Hiring more teachers – and paying them better – is essential, he says; he would like to provide additional compensation to teachers who have narrowed the gap among students in their classes.
“Teachers deserve every penny they make and more,” he says.
He suggests Montgomery do more work in public-private partnerships and establish endowment funds to ease some of its funding pressures. Until the school system manages its money better, he says, he would not support tax increases.
Sebastian Johnson, 27, is a former student member of Montgomery’s school board making a bid to return a decade later for a four-year term. A 2006 graduate of Montgomery Blair High School, he went on to Georgetown University and did a stint with Teach for America before getting his master’s degree at Harvard University.
Johnson lives in Takoma Park and works as a fiscal policy analyst at the nonprofit Institute on Taxation and Economic Policy.
Among his top priorities are lowering class sizes and increasing the number of teachers and support staff in elementary schools. He supports a 6.4-percent tax hike proposed by County Executive Isiah Leggett (D) as a way to fund such efforts. “Studies show that when you make smart investments in early childhood, you get the biggest impact,” he says.
Johnson is a strong proponent of bilingual education and is pushing for more investment in “community schools” that offer extensive extracurricular activities and social services for families .
He says he favors a more activist school board and would like to bring research, new ideas and best practices to the table. “In some cases, that might mean challenging the superintendent,” he said. “Ultimately I think the responsibility for leading the school system rests with the board of education.”
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. He has been board president and vice president and is now chairman of the board’s fiscal management committee.
Kauffman, the father of two graduates of the school system, says lower class sizes are a priority and that he has been pressing 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.”
He cites the achievement gap, school crowding and career education as other top issues, and says he would support Leggett’s proposed tax hike so that schools can be more fully funded.
Kauffman, who earned a bachelor’s degree at University of Pennsylvania and a law degree at University of Maryland, said he believes 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,” he said.
Gwendolyn Love Kimbrough, 74, a psychologist who previously worked in D.C. public schools and lives in Chevy Chase, sees her job experience in diversity issues as a benefit to the school system from which her daughter, nephew and grandchildren graduated.
Kimbrough worked as a staff member on the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights and an executive asssitant to former D.C. Superintendent Barbara Sizemore in the mid-1970s. She earned her bachelor’s, master’s and doctoral degrees at Howard University.
“I’d like to share my background and my experience with the Montgomery County public school system,” she said.
Her priorities include changing discipline policies to prevent students from being pushed into the criminal justice system and training teachers about cultural differences, to minimize misidentification of black males for special education services. “I think there are so many biases that we have that are subsconsious biases,” she said.
She said the achievement gap is a strong concern, and she would not support a tax increase until the district has explored more funding options. “If we exhaust those options and we still have gaping holes in our school needs, then we certainly should resort to increased taxation,” she said.