In Howard school board race, candidates share common views

Jess Nocera
Contact ReporterHoward County Times

A construction manager, a college professor, an education foundation adviser, an engineer, two former Howard County public school teachers, a former chairwoman of the Community Action Council and a former president of the county’s PTA Council County all have one goal in mind: to join the ranks of the Board of Education.

The eight candidates in the nonpartisan race are vying for one of four open seats on the school board. None of the incumbents whose terms are expiring are seeking re-election.

The candidates are Vicky Cutroneo, 50; Bob Glascock, 66; Danny Mackey, 24; Jen Mallo, 49; Robert Miller, 61; Anita Pandey, 48; Sabina Taj, 46; and Chao Wu, 40.

The school board has seven members elected at large, with an additional seat for a student member.

The state’s sixth-largest school system and one of the highest achieving in the nation based on test scores, Howard County will be facing pressures in the current and future academic years, including achievement gaps, funding, classroom crowding and investing in more social and emotional safety measures for students.

The candidates

Cutroneo, a Woodbine resident and former president of the PTA Council of Howard County and a former pediatric nurse, said its important to have a board member with health expertise.

“A lot of [board] decisions are based on student health,” Cutroneo said. “My default is health...I think it’s important for someone to have that credibility.”

Now retired, Glascock had a 38-year career in education as a former county social studies teacher, an assistant superintendent and an executive director at the Maryland State Department of Education. Public education, he said, is “in my bones.”

One reason the Ellicott City resident is running is to get the school system “back on track,” and be fiscally sound, referring to the $50 million health care deficit the school system acquired after the employee health and dental fund was depleted for seven years.

Mackey, an Ellicott City resident and a construction manager, wants to to restore relationships between the school system and the community and “make sure everyone feels as though they have a say in the future of the Howard County Public School System.”

Mallo, of Columbia, who has served as the chairwoman and vice chairwoman of the school system’s Community Advisory Council, the liaison organization between the school board and community, wants to have members who are “competent and experienced and have longevity in the system with some institutional history.”

Some of Mallo’s priorities include not increasing class sizes and being committed to having diversity, equity and inclusion in the school system’s policy and budgetary means.

Miller, a Columbia resident, who retired from the school system in 2015 after being a band director at the elementary, middle and high school levels for 34 years, decided to run because of past decisions—including, class scheduling, testing, teacher evaluations, instruction time— made by the school board “and had feeling some of the consequences were not being fully understood.”

Pandey, of Ellicott City, who has been teaching for 28 years with the latter 18 focused on teacher education, including as a professor at Morgan State University, said he decided to run to address the “very visible” achievement gap in the school and for her two daughters who are students in the school system.

Also a reading specialist, Pandey said “it bothers me that we have so many cases of dyslexia in our schools and Howard County is no exception.”

Taj, an Ellicott City resident and a longtime adviser for a foundation that supports initiatives in kindergarten-to-12th grade education “wants to see [school board] decisions based in research, supported by data and validated by [the] community.”

Also as a women of color, Taj believes that “governing bodies that represent communities, particularly around education should be representative of those communities.”

“Many voices are seldom, if ever, heard in the community conversations leading up to Board of Education decisions and I want to ensure these conversations are inclusive and representative of our county’s rich diversity,” Taj said.

Wu, a data scientist and an engineer, has a passion to make sure every student has a quality education.

“We need to keep evolving and improving because as education continuously evolves, we need to adapt to the changes…to keep the school system continuously one of the best,” the Clarksville resident said.

‘The tide is turning’

In the 2016 election, three new members joined the school board, ousting incumbents who sought re-election and often sided with Renee Foose, the former county schools superintendent.

The former school board had a strained relationship with Foose, who stepped down in May 2017. Critics and parents said the school system was not transparent about mold issues at Glenwood and other county schools in 2015 and that public information requests went unfulfilled.

Martirano, who came in after Foose, has set out to heal and change the culture of the school system.

Glascock said Martirano has made some “significant strides” in turning around the school system.

“It’s night and day,” said Cutroneo, who ran in 2016. “It’s a different playing field than two years ago.”

Mackey doesn’t believe that the school board has “done enough to foster relationships that were damaged since the previous administration.”

Taj echoed saying, “I think we are still embroiled in the issues that surrounded Foose and dealing with the aftermath of that...and I think we really need to get back to the business of serving our children.”

Pandey, Wu, Mallo all said that the board and superintendent seem to have a good working relationship.

Miller, who also ran unsuccessfully in 2016, said the relationship between the school board and superintendent is much healthier and “the tide is turning in a more positive direction.”

Classroom crowding

The school board is looking into options to alleviate crowding at the five most populated high schools, Centennial, Hammond, Howard, Long Reach and Mt. Hebron.

“The overcrowding issue did not happen overnight,” Mackey said. “This is an issue of a lot of people moving to the county very quickly but it is more so an issue, a self inflicted wound, by an utter lack of leadership on this issue at the highest levels of the Howard County Public School System.”

If elected, Mackey wants to rewrite Policy 6010, which governs the school board’s attendance areas. The key change Mackey wants is to use algorithms to create boundary line adjustment maps. Most other candidates mentioned that the policy needs to be followed, something they feel has not been done.

Mallo, who sat on the last policy review committee in 2016, said that if the guidelines — community stability, facility utilization, demographic characteristics— were followed “we will be so much better off as a school system because it will promote a much safer set of schools, promote a more diverse set of schools and we all benefit from having that kind of experience.”

Wu said the school board needs to improve its policy and undertake the redistricting process “in a better way.”

“I think we need to redistrict, it’s a matter of health and safety,” Cutroneo said. “It’s not healthy and it’s not safe to have these extreme overcrowding conditions in our buildings.”

Mallo said “redistricting, it will be difficult … [but] I think we can really integrate some of our community input into what the transition will look like.”

Taking a look at comprehensive redistricting that considers the long term, such as 10 years in the future, is the direction the school board should be going, Miller said.

Glascock has developed a six stage redistricting process that includes a readiness factor, making sure everyone is ready for the change, a transition stage, how the school board can help families with the move, working in collaboration with outside consultants and the county planning and zoning boards, establish a better projection of student growth, focus on keeping neighborhoods together and follow the redistricting policy.

Both Wu and Taj want to see more schools built. Schools should be funded in collaboration by the state and the county, Wu said.

Taj would “love to have plans for building schools for not just a couple years out but for 5 to 10 years.”

“We need to do more long-term planning to figure out where the growth is going to be and how to effectively manage that growth,” Taj said.

Pandey, was the only candidate that said the school board has “to think of a Band-Aid fix for the next year,” including replacing temporary “portable” classrooms, with permanent fixtures and creating different release times for students at Howard and Centennial high schools when moving from one class to another to have “some sanity in the congested hallways.”

Most candidates said that the decision to place the county’s 13th high school in Jessup has been made and from here on out to just continue on with the project. The high school is slated to be completed in August 2023.

“I believe that high school 13 should have been built in Elkridge because according to policy and according to even at the state level with the public school construction program say to build where the students are, not where you think they are going to be, not where they are coming,” Cutroneo said.

During several public forums and in interviews, the candidates were in agreement that the county’s 14 high school should be built in Elkridge, many saying that is where crowding is the most significant.

Talbott Springs Elementary School, rebuild or renovate?

All candidates agreed that the school system should move forward in a replacement Talbott Springs Elementary School despite a state commission’s recommendation not to fund a new $41 million building.

The current school board approved for the the school system to submit the revised plans for the Columbia school to the state on Oct. 2.

Wu and Miller said that if the state does not commit to replacement funding that the school system should look at other options rather than using county funding to pay for the project.

Glascock doesn’t believe that schools should be replaced without state funding.

Safety and security

Against the backdrop of fatal shootings at schools in Maryland and Florida last winter, candidates were asked if county schools are physically safe enough from a gunman and if the school system should consider placing metal detectors at entrances.

All candidates opposed metal detectors and said in some fashion that there needs to more investments into student’s social and emotional well-being. Martirano plans to hire an additional 12 social workers over the next four years.

“A metal detector is not going to necessarily keep a gun out of the school,” Mallo said. “More often than not, the school shooter is not going to be coming through a front door where the metal detector would be.”

Mackey is “against spending any money on efforts that will buy our community a false sense of security.”

While Wu said the school system needs to take care of children, that it should still invest more into physical safety measures, including all lock systems being up to par.

“We need to pay attention to their mental health and building relationships between the students and teachers,” Wu said. “A close relationship will them [students] feel they are involved in the school system.”

Miller does not want students to be attending school each day “in a prison-like atmosphere.”

“To provide safer environments for our students … we need ways for students and staff to be able to report concerns of either another student or community member,” Miller said. “We need to do this in a way that does not scare any student.”

The school system needs to build an internal process to pick up on student’s behaviors and be able to immediately diffuse situations and provide support to the child and their family, according to Glascock.

Taj echoed Glascock saying the school system needs to have a clear plan in place when assessing a situation with a team of teachers, trained psychologists and school resource officers.

“We need to address the most vulnerable of us,” Taj said.

Pandey feels that the school system has not done enough, including not having student security or in-school community member teams to be around for students.

“There is very little relationship building … community support teams can help build trust, can diffuse tensions and get to know kids who are feeling isolated,” Pandey said.

Children are afraid to go to school but not because of living in fear of a school shooter but because of bullying, Cutroneo said.

“I think our kids are more at risk with bullying and mental health issues, more than the fear of someone from the outside coming in and shooting,” Cutroneo said. “We are in a vicious cycle [with bullying].”

Achievement gap in Howard County

The term “achievement gap” defines the differences in academic performance between groups of students of different backgrounds with respect to their disability ethnicity, race, gender, income status and if they are an English Language Learner, according to the National Education Association, a public education educator union.

“The achievement gap in Howard County is visible, particularly in the population we have referred to as English Language Learners … we do not see the assets they bring to schools, such as their other language,” Pandey said.

The lower-performing students are those who come from low-income households, participate in the school system’s free-and-reduced meals program, known as FARMS, or whose primary spoken language at home isn’t English, according to Pandey.

“We are looking at 63 percent of students of color population and a 75 percent teaching force that doesn’t reflect [that],” Taj said. “We know that when students of color have a teacher of color attendance goes up, academic achievement goes up, enrollment goes up [and] there’s lower disciplinary action for student of color.”

The school system has not been able “to crack that egg” in diversifying the teaching force, Cutroneo said. A negative impact on the achievement gap is not hiring more minority teachers, to have teachers who look like students and for students to be able to identify with them.

When Mackey was a teacher’s aide in a regular 10th-grade English class, he began to “realize the disparity of achievement between students and the fact that the school system was failing students of color and students of poor economic standing at an alarming rate.”

Mackey wants to bring underserved communities voices to the table “so they could inform better decision making for the school system.”

The school system should work with nonprofits, PTA’s, community volunteers and local businesses to support students and help them grow and achieve their potential, Wu said.

Miller would like to see 60 to 90 minutes a week dedicated for one-on-one assistance in the classroom “for students who are struggling with academic challenges or social and emotional challenges.”

“One thing that I feel quite strongly about is to get back more instructional time,” Miller said. “I think one on one time [between a student and teacher] is crucial and if we have students who are not mastering hierarchical skills, they are going to fall behind and the gap is going to widen.”

Glascock, who has worked to combat achievement gaps during his career, said that students need additional supports and tools, including after-school programs, adding support teachers into reading and math classes and tutorial or computer-based programs.

“How are kids going to accelerate their achievement, what does that mean?” Glascock said. “You want to individualize it [achievement] as much as possible.”

For Mallo, “within Howard County specifically the [achievement] gap often appears as a socioeconomic divide,” with students from high socioeconomic backgrounds at the top of the gap and students from lower socioeconomic backgrounds at the low end.

“The answer is not to tell students to slow down,” Mallo said. “We should find ways to support them … [including] by setting and insisting high expectations of all of our students regardless of their socioeconomic background and certainly regardless of race, gender, religion or creed.”

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