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News Maryland Howard County Ellicott City

Howard BOE candidates forum a civil discourse

In a largely civil forum Wednesday, candidates for the Howard County Board of Education spent little time pointing out the differences between themselves and other colleagues.

Instead, there was a general consensus on most topics, whether balancing STEM education and the arts, making the budget process more transparent, or implementing technology in the classroom.

The forum hosted by the League of Women Voters of Howard County attracted about 30 people to the Howard County Board of Education Board Room.

The field of 13 candidates for the seven member board was split in two to address the same questions with each group taking a little over an hour. Candidate Christine O'Connor was unable to attend the forum due to the weather.

Among the early questions to candidates was the income disparity between Howard County schools and how the school board should address the issue.

For Bess Altwerger, the solution could come from a better partnerships with parents and reducing class sizes.

"We need individualized curriculum," she said. "I can't stress that enough. We are in an era of standardization. Standardization does not fit standardized kids. There are no standardized kids. We need to treat each individual child as an individual and give them what they need."

Tom Baek said this is not an issue that will disappear overnight, but he pointed toward universal pre-kindergarten as a potential remedy.

"Universal pre-k, studies have shown across the board, categorically improves early cognitive learning, social, psychological development, which eventually we all hope can narrow that gap," he said.

Candidates agreed that STEM initiatives are important for students, but also stressed that arts education is equally important

Cindy Vaillancourt, an incumbent seeking her second term on the board, said if she were in charge, the overemphasis of STEM at an early age would be eliminated.

"I defy anyone to find a credible source that doesn't say that arts and music prep the brain for future learning," she said.

Leslie Kornreich, who works at the Anne Arundel Community College STEM Center, said many of tomorrow's jobs will be in STEM fields, but she would not be in favor of prioritizing these courses over arts and music.

"If we want to have strong programs in both we have to think outside the box because the school day is only so long," she said, adding that magnet schools may be a possible remedy.

Candidates agreed that the school budget process must be transparent for the public, but Dan Furman, a former school board attorney, said he has "serious concerns" with the Superintendent's zero-based budgeting process implemented this year.

"I hope that it works out for the best, but at this current juncture we need to make sure we're being able to compare this year to last year so we know how to plan for next year," he said.

Allen Dyer, a former school board member with an eventful history regarding transparency in school system operations, said budget transparency is critical.

"Unless we empower our citizens, our voters, and encourage oversight of the largest budget in the county, we're never going to accomplish anything," he said.

When asked about the biggest weakness in the Howard County Public School System, incumbent Sandra French said staff is demoralized.

"They have been under so much stress this year trying to accommodate to the new Common Core curriculum," she said. "Last year and this year have been extremely difficult for our teachers."

For Corey Andrews, the biggest weakness is shortcomings in long-term planning for school infrastructure.

"We're being very reactive instead of proactive when it comes to building schools," he said. "We need to make sure that adequate public facilities is keeping up with development in this community."

Olga Butler believes the biggest weakness of the school system starts at the top.

"I think if we have a board that is collaborative, cohesive, engaged, and involved, they can make policy and procedures and have them implemented," she said, adding that if that is accomplished problems discussed by other candidates would fall by the wayside.

When asked about what technology initiatives would make Howard County a national leader, Mike Smith said computers need to be in the hands of every student both in school and at home.

"If we can get computers in the hands of more kids, in fact every kid, I think that they're better prepared to succeed in education and in the business world," he said.

Maureen Evans Arthurs proposed more virtual interaction between students at different schools.

"I think it would be really cool for a first or third or fifth grade class at one school to be able to see what another school is doing within the county," she said. "I think that would be a really neat exchange to see how ideas are being spread."

Zaneb Beams acknowledged she would like to see less technology in the classroom, but said the most important fact about technology is not what devices are being used, but that every child should have the same opportunities.

"When I go to Running Brook and I see what their computers look like compared to what my kids' computers in Triadelphia Ridge, I am appalled," she said. "I feel ashamed of living where I live because it is not fair. It is not fair the start that those kids are getting as compared to my kids."

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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