With the general election less than seven weeks away, candidates Zabrina Epps and David Murray are ramping up their efforts to claim the open District 1 seat on the Prince George's County Board of Education.
The seat is being left vacant by Rosalind Johnson, who is retiring at the end of her term after six years serving the district that includes Laurel, and Murray and Epps have both been hard at work trying to gain the attention of voters.
Epps, who lives in Laurel, said she's been knocking on doors, waving hello to people as they drive to school in the morning, and attending PTSA meetings and community events.
"I want the voters to know I'm accessible and will do whatever it takes to make the case on behalf of PGCPS," Epps said.
Murray, too, has been talking to as many voters as he can, "letting people know who I am and what I stand for," he said.
"Any time I'm not in school, I'm rushing back here to talk to people," said Murray, a student at University of Maryland, Baltimore County who is from Bowie. "It's getting near crunch time."
The two have also been attending forums. Next week, the League of Women Voters of Prince George's County and the Prince George's County branch of the NAACP are co-sponsoring a public forum for Board of Education candidates in all of the county's districts on Sept. 25, at 6 p.m., in the Rennie Forum Auditorium at Prince George's Community College in Largo.
Two candidates, two backgrounds
Murray, 20, has previously run for the District 1 seat. In 2008, fewer than 1,000 votes separated him and incumbent Johnson. Murray, who received 47.3 percent of the votes, lost to the incumbent by 998 votes.
In April's primary election, however, Murray was the front-runner, garnering about 1,500 more votes than Epps, and 56 percent of the total vote.
Both he and Epps — the top two vote-getters — advanced to the general election, after a third candidate, education advocate and Laurel resident Mike McLaughlin, dropped out of the race shortly before the primary.
Murray's campaign has been based on increasing student achievement and restoring public trust in the school system, with a focus on building community involvement in the district.
"I'm concerned about our class sizes, and teacher effectiveness, and parental involvement," he said. "It's extremely difficult on the students and teachers to perform, when you have class sizes well above 30 students. That has to become a top priority for the system."
Streamlining the budget is also important, Murray said, with more funds going back into the classroom and with cuts to administrative costs.
Murray is studying economics at UMBC. A 2010 graduate of Eleanor Roosevelt High, in Greenbelt, he has previously served as the student member of the Maryland State Board of Education.
In the primary, Epps, 40, earned 31 percent of the vote and was endorsed in the primary by The Washington Post (the Laurel Leader did not endorse a candidate in the primary). Epps is an academic adviser at the Community College of Baltimore County, where she regularly helps students who struggle in the college environment.
Epps is a former budget analyst for the Maryland General Assembly, and has worked with County Executive Rushern Baker III and Laurel Mayor Craig Moe, and said Moe has endorsed her candidacy. She has also received McLaughlin's support.
Voters "tune in" when they hear that she used to be a budget analyst, Epps said, and appreciate the perspective she brings as a college professional.
In the months since the primary, several new issues have sprung up in Prince George's schools — Superintendent William Hite left the system earlier this month to take the reins in Philadelphia schools, and the board has named Alvin Crawley interim superintendent until the spot is filled next year.
"It will be critical for the board to hire a permanent superintendent of schools, with the kind of transformative leadership skills to propel us to the top of Maryland school districts," Epps said. "With better coordination and a call for cooperative efforts, I believe we will be in a much better position within the next few years."
Young faces in the race
In addition to Murray, two other young candidates are running for school board in Prince George's County.
In the District 8 primary, where five candidates competed for two general election slots, 19-year-old incumbent Edward Burroughs, of Camp Springs, earned 67 percent of the vote. Like Murray, Burroughs, who won his seat in 2010, is a UMBC student.
In District 5, 18-year-old Raaheela Ahmed earned 34.5 percent of the primary vote, more than any other candidate, including incumbent and board Chair Verjeana Jacobs, who finished second with 25 percent of the vote. Ahmed, of Bowie, is a freshman at the University of Maryland.
Murray said he doesn't see his age as an obstacle; people are pleasantly surprised when they find out he's running for the board, he said, and that "they have a young person growing up in the county, deciding they're not going to leave, or wait till they get older to solve problems, that they're willing to jump in now and do that."
Epps said, for some reason "experience" had come to be seen as a dirty word during the campaign season.
"At this point in my life, I can't take away the facts that I have studied and performed budget analyses, conducted economic development research or served students in college for the last decade," she said. "I care about the school system and have invested in it as a taxpayer and homeowner. ... I didn't have any of the insights I have now when I was in college, or graduate school for that matter."