The school system's budget, diversity, the achievement gap and teacher recruitment dominated the discussion Saturday, Feb. 18 as candidates for the county Board of Education gathered at the first public forum for the April primary election.
Nine of the 14 candidates vying for three open seats on the board showed up at the African American Coalition of Howard County's forum at St. John Baptist Church in Columbia, the first of several forums scheduled.
The candidates who did not attend were David Gertler, Owen Hanratty, Bob Ballinger, Mary Jo Neil and Jim Adams. Another candidate, Kelly Casey Van Horn, dropped out of the race last week.
Overall, about 60 people, including candidates and organizers, attended the event.
With the board set to vote on the $697 million operating request for fiscal year 2013 the following week, many candidates said they felt the budget did not reflect the correct priorities.
"I don't have a lot of confidence in the budget at this point, " Ann De Lacy said. "There are no metrics use to tell whether various programs are working or not ... in order to make fiscally sound decisions, you must have metrics to measure the effectiveness of programs."
Other candidates pointed out other problems, such as the budget not taking into account the possible shift of teacher pension costs from the state to the county, or the fact that public input is taken into consideration so late in the budget process.
"Board members should be more actively involved in the budget process early on to provide guidance ahead of the creation of the budget," incumbent Allen Dyer said. "As for input from the community, it should not come last, it should come first."
Some candidates defended the budget's priorities.
"The budget is fiscally sound under the circumstances," incumbent Janet Siddiqui said. "We've been in challenging circumstances over the last three years to improve things ... but the budget does include directives we had on expanding technology."
Candidates proposed different solutions for narrowing and eliminating the achievement gap between students of different ethnicities and backgrounds, such as starting early childhood education as early as the age of 2 or better utilizing guidance counselors or sharing best practices among teachers. Most agreed that the problem didn't have one solution.
"Socioeconomics may be one piece of it," Jackie Scott said. "But we have to engage students in a different way across the board. We must have a curriculum that embraces the teaching of cultures so that students are learning and seeing people who have achieved."
Individualized attention may also help the achievement gap narrow, some said.
"There needs to be an achievement plan," Olga Butler said. "There's a lot that affects so much of the achievement of the student that's not always recognized when they get to school. ... We need to understand the families, we need to give them an individualized plan and work with them."
The candidates agreed that the school system has excellent programs for special needs and gifted and talented students. But when it comes to students who fall in the middle, some said, more options need to be presented.
"In the middle, we're not teaching students the way we should be teaching them," Leslie Kornreich said. "We're teaching them to remember and regurgitate, and the standardized test has become the be-all and end-all judging for success, and it can't be that way any longer."
Increased vocational opportunities was a solution proposed by some.
"We need to look into school-based vo-tech," Corey Andrews said. "We have (the Applications and Research Lab) but I think that tends to be less attractive to students, and they pass those opportunities by."
Several candidates said the system should be recruiting teachers who reflect the student population. All spoke of the value of teachers: Siddiqui called them the backbone of the system, and incumbent Ellen Flynn Giles agreed diversity is important, but so is elevating the status of the teacher.
"We have to make it truly competitive, to bring the best to us so they can give the best to the students," Giles said. "If we value education, we have to value the people that deliver it."
"Teachers need to get to know the individual student, to know what he or she is interested in and know their personality," former board member Patricia Gordon said. "This will produce an atmosphere where every student wants to learn, and we know their abilities and can foster them."
Another forum, this one hosted by the League of Women Voters of Howard County, is scheduled for Monday, March 5 at 6 p.m. in the board room of the Department of Education in Ellicott City.