With a little more than a month to go before the general election Nov. 6, the race for Howard County's Board of Education is heating up.
At a two-hour forum and debate Monday night, Sept. 24, sponsored by the League of Women Voters of Howard County and the PTA Council of Howard County, the candidates covered issues that ran the gamut, from transparency and technology to bullying and the budget.
The event, held before a small audience in the television studio of the Howard County Public School System's Applications and Research Lab, was aired live on HCPSS TV and also streamed online.
Six candidates are vying for three open seats on the board: incumbents Ellen Giles and Janet Siddiqui, and challengers David Gertler, Jackie Scott, Ann De Lacy and Bob Ballinger. They were whittled down from an initial field of 14 in the April primary.
Among the losers in the primary was incumbent Allen Dyer, which guarantees that the new board will include at least one new member.
Interspersed among questions about the high-school grading policy, redistricting and public input, each candidate was asked who among the other five candidates he or she would like to work with, and on what policies or programs the two could collaborate.
In response to that question, De Lacy chose Scott, because the two have "the same mind set." Scott answered with Siddiqui because of the latter's "understanding of the development piece, of children's ability to learn."
Siddiqui in turn named every candidate in the race, and Giles said she would like to see "everyone up here work together, and if we continue to work together, whatever the results of the election … we can make a difference in the school system."
Gertler chose not to "endorse" any one candidate but said he would want to work with "intelligent people, people who are willing to ask questions, with different ideas than mine so we can hash out better ideas."
Ballinger responded to that question by naming current board member Brian Meshkin, who is not a candidate.
Each candidate was asked how issues in specific regions — east Columbia, west Columbia, Elkridge, Ellicott City, Laurel and Glenwood — ought to be addressed.
When asked about Ellicott City, De Lacy said that, like Elkridge, the area's schools are overcrowded.
"I would address it in the manner I would address any of those other areas," she said. "I would reach out to the union and listen to the parents and get other people involved in the process."
Ballinger was asked specifically about Elkridge, and echoed De Lacy's statement about overcrowding in the region.
"We need to get classrooms built," he said. "We have, in my opinion, not listened to the concerns of the parents in the community. We have not made it a priority on the school board to make sure we're addressing their needs."
Two new schools are scheduled to open in the Elkridge area — an elementary school in 2013 and middle school in 2014.
Other candidates were less specific in approaching the question, opting to speak broadly about the reach of the school board.
"As a board member, you have a responsibility to govern across the county," Scott said when asked about Laurel. "My approach is to be open and accessible to everyone. We have to go to the parents ... get out of the board room and spend time (in the communities)."
Siddiqui, when asked about Glenwood, noted newer schools like Bushy Park Elementary and renovations at Glenelg High that "pleased" the community, but said as the board "looks at any school, we need to look and make sure the programs are delivering a safe and nurturing environment."
'A long-term vision'
In regards to the optional question of redistricting — some questions were asked of specific candidates, others were open to all who would volunteer a response — Ballinger suggested open enrollment and, again, more schools in the Elkridge area, while De Lacy warned against the current "broken" system of redistricting that creates "pockets of poverty" in the Columbia region.
But Gertler spoke to the need of a "long-term vision" when it comes to planning and redistricting — one of the main issues of his candidacy, he said.
"We don't need to keep kicking the can down the block, one year at a time," he said. "We need to get everyone together to say, 'What's the long-term plan and why are we constantly adding more development and increased density where we don't have capacity?' And we have to be willing to make the tough decisions. ... We've had a misplacement of capacity, which has caused a displacement of community."
The school system and the board are currently in the midst of planning elementary school redistricting for next year, with a recommendation set to go before the board next month. Incumbents Giles and Siddiqui, who will be part of the board that makes the final decision, did not answer the redistricting question.
A harder look at the budget
Several questions were asked about the schools' annual budget, including a debate question posed to Giles and Siddiqui.
"It should be a year-round (process)," Siddiqui said. "We need to be constantly looking at what our priorities are, what our programs need and what our facilities needs."
Giles said the system and board needed to engage more people earlier in the process.
"That way we have the full benefit of the input of the community at large ... to leverage the funding in the most effective way," Giles said.
When asked what spending categories should be given the hardest look, De Lacy said that, in her time sitting on the Operating Budget Review Committee, there had been very little done in terms of auditing programs, policies and practice to see what had been working effectively in the schools.
League co-President Betsy Grater closed the forum in encouraging the public to educate themselves about the candidates and voting in the general election.
"Democracy is not a spectator sport," she said.