At their first forum of the election season Tuesday night, in front of an audience of more than 90 people, all 11 Howard County Board of Education candidates answered questions about how the school board could better communicate with and involve parents and educators.
Comments from non-incumbent candidates often turned to criticism of the current school board.
To cheers, candidate and former president of the PTA Council of Howard County Christina Delmont-Small criticized school officials' lack of openness about the budget, citing the current board's disbanding of the citizen's operating budget review committee.
"The public needs more opportunity for input and not less," she said.
Robert Miller, a candidate and former Howard County teacher, criticized the current atmosphere in which he said educators are discouraged from expressing concerns, and talked about creating an atmosphere where "everybody's input is invited and listened to and considered."
Questions were written by audience members and officers of the Ellicott City and Western Howard Democratic Club, which hosted the forum, and touched on various topics, from the board's relationship with the superintendent to how to bring civility to the board.
"If you want to talk about incivility, look to the current leadership of the school board," said Corey Andrews, a University of Maryland-Baltimore County and Howard Community College student and school board candidate. "The first step towards making the board more civil is to elect new board members."
The 11 candidates are vying for three spots on the board currently held by Ann De Lacy, Ellen Flynn Giles and Janet Siddiqui; all three are running for re-election.
In addition to the three incumbents, eight newcomers of various professional backgrounds have filed their candidacies, from a pupil personnel worker to a parent advocate to an information technology professional.
In 2014, 13 school board candidates ran in the primary for four seats, and two years before that, 15 candidates ran for three seats.
As of Jan. 15, Giles had received more contributions than any other candidate, with $10,609.62 in donations, according to available campaign finance reports.
While Siddiqui and Giles acknowledged the need for collaboration and communication with the community — without affirming other candidates' criticisms — DeLacy denied allegations that the board doesn't already do these things.
"We collaborate with the Council of Elders, we collaborate with Hispanic groups, Asian groups, the Community Action Council," she said. "We have a lot of conversations."
The Ellicott City and Western Howard Democratic Club chose to host Tuesday's candidate forum even though the school board election is nonpartisan, the club's president said, because of how important this race is to the local community.
"It seems like there's a lot of intensity around this one," said Daniel Medinger, who has led the club for about a year. "There have been some issues that have angered or disappointed certain parts of the community. People are a bit riled up in ways that I haven't seen in previous times."
The current school board and superintendent have come under fire for a wide array of issues, from special education in the county to the handling of the discovery of mold at Glenwood Middle School, to the Feb. 4 renewal of Superintendent Renee Foose's contract amid ongoing criticism of her leadership.
At the heart of the various complaints are allegations that school system officials have ignored the input of parents and educators and excluded them from decision making.
In an open letter shared dozens of times on social media and posted on several local blogs, a former chairman of the Board of Education, Joshua Kaufman, condemned the current board and Foose's "disturbing approach to governing," saying that are dismissive of the public and show "nothing but contempt for us, the citizens of Howard County."
Christine O'Connor, who chairs the current school board, wrote in an email to the Howard County Times that she disagrees with Kaufman's allegations.
"I wish he would have contacted me for factual information," she wrote. "Many, many citizens feel differently than his opinion."
Since the board voted to renew Foose's four-year contract, concerned parents and county officials have turned their attention to the school board election as a potential remedy to the problems they see in school system leadership.
"The superintendent is not going to step down. She's not going anywhere," said state Del. Frank Turner, who represents District 13. "Why not focus your time on where you can make a difference? And that is who you elect to the board on April 26: that's where the attention should be directed. If you get a strong school board, that will make things transparent, accountable and responsive to the questions and concerns of parents."
In the April 26 primary, registered voters can vote for three of the 11 school board candidates, six of which will move onto the Nov. 8 general election. Voters must be registered as members of the Republican or Democratic parties to vote for presidential candidates, but party registration is not required to vote for local school board candidates.
The Howard County Educators Association is recommending that its nearly 5,000 members vote for Mavis Ellis and Christina Delmont-Small, in addition to Kirsten Coombs, whom they endorsed in December.
"These candidates each bring different experiences to this race. They share our passion for making our schools the best that they can be, and they are ready to make this Board of Education truly representative and accountable to the community," said Paul Lemle, the association's president, in a statement in February. "It's time to turn the page on the current board, and elect one that listens to educators and community members."
The People's Voice, a local civic organization, is also endorsing Ellis, Delmont-Small and Coombs, in addition to Vicky Cutroneo.
"The Board of Directors of The People's Voice is pleased to support these qualified candidates, who support our goals of transparency, accountability, objectivity and fairness for the school system and our county," the organization's president, Lisa Markovitz, said in a statement.
Representatives from both The People's Voice and the Howard County Educators Association said that, unlike the eight challengers, the three incumbents did not participate in their recommendation processes, and therefore could not be endorsed by either organization.
"Failing to engage with HCEA sends a clear message that the incumbents don't want to hear from educators," Lemle said. "This is how they behave with parents, students, teachers and anyone else who they perceive as critical of the Board — and we intend to change the board this November."