Columbia resident is school board hopeful

"I would be another independent voice," says new #HoCo school board candidate Kirsten Coombs

Kirsten Coombs, an accountant and parent of a Wilde Lake Middle School student, will announce her candidacy for the Howard County school board on Thursday evening. She was driven to run by what she sees as a need for accountability and oversight in the school system.

"If you're spending hundreds of millions of dollars, we need to know how these programs are succeeding or failing, or whatever's going on," said Coombs. "We need to know what the real status is and why you've made that decision in the first place."

The four-year terms of Board of Education Chairwoman Janet Siddiqui, Vice Chairwoman Ann De Lacy and member Ellen Flynn Giles will expire in 2016, leaving three openings to be voted on during the 2016 election cycle.

Coombs said that the current board is not providing enough oversight of the superintendent and her staff, who, as a result, are allowed to make changes that are not "thoughtful."

"Howard County has a great [school] system," she said. "However, I've become worried about our priorities. And changes to programs that made Howard County great — I think some of them are being made too quickly and without deeper analysis of the cost-benefit to the system and the students and the educational staff."

On her blog, Coombs criticized the implementation of the school system's Bring Your Own Device program, writing that it was rolled out without a plan. During an interview, she pointed to the implementation of the Elementary School Model in Howard County schools as one of the changes that has happened "too quickly" and that sparked her interest in school system issues.

The new model, which was partially implemented at Ducketts Lane Elementary School in the 2013-2014 school year, then expanded to five additional elementary schools in the 2014-2015 school year, includes daily instruction in Spanish for students in prekindergarten through fifth grade and departmentalization of content in language arts, social studies, math, science and health.

"Instead of waiting until the end of the year and doing an analysis of what had gone on [in Ducketts Lane Elementary], what went right, what went wrong, and getting input from educational staff, parents and even students, it was decided that the model would be implemented at Running Brook," said Coombs, who lives with her husband and daughter in Columbia Town Center.

Coombs's daughter, Lily, attended Running Brook Elementary School before starting sixth grade at Wilde Lake Middle School this fall.

"I do think world language is important and I think it should be offered, but I think there should be analysis done of what other programs it's going to impact," Coombs said. "One thing it took away from was music, and other related arts. Well, should it?"

How would Coombs, who currently serves on the board of the Columbia Town Center Community Association, change the direction of the school board?

"I bring my voice to ask questions and to get on record asking uncomfortable questions that people might not want to hear. I've admired that about Cindy," she said about school board member Cindy Vaillancourt. "She's been asking harder questions." Granted, she doesn't always get answers. But she has been at least voicing them and you can hear her. She's not just receiving information. She's asking questions."

Vaillancourt has served on the board since 2010.

Coombs moved to Columbia 18 years ago after completing bachelor's degrees in accounting and history at the University of Maryland College Park. She also has a master's degree in business administration from the University of Maryland University College.

After Superintendent Renee Foose suspended the school system's operating budget review committee in 2014, Coombs worked on the community-organized Citizen's Operating Budget Review Committee.

"I jumped at the chance to dig into the budget and go through and ask questions, and ask why," she said.

Coombs will announce her candidacy at Historic Oakland on Thursday at 6:30 p.m. For more information about her campaign, go to http://kirstencoombs.org/.

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