Issues up for discussion at the Board of Education candidates forum ran the gamut — from the role of the operating budget review committee to school schedules and calendars.
All 14 candidates attended the March 5 evening session, along with a standing-room only crowd at the Board of Education building. It was the second of several forums to be held in preparation for the April 3 primary, at which time the list of contenders will be whittled down to six competing for three open seats in November.
Split into two sessions to accommodate the large field of candidates, the forum — sponsored by the League of Women Voters of Howard County — covered roughly 20 questions, most boiling down to issues of communication, innovation and a better functioning board.
"It starts with building strong relationships with each board member," said Corey Andrews. "There's so much dysfunction with communication issues. How can you be accountable to the public if you can't even communicate with fellow board members? Go to teachers, they're the experts. Go to the public. We're not representing ourselves or our own personal views."
Public dialogue is key in making sure the board functions effectively, many candidates said.
"When we open up communication, I believe we have a stronger school system," said Bob Ballinger. "Stronger schools start with parents and teachers advising us what they believe are the best practices."
Personal contact is more effective than committee meetings, said former board member Patricia Gordon.
And it's the responsibility of board members, said incumbent Ellen Giles, to reach out into the community for that contact and input.
"We're in this together," she said. "There's no way for the school system to function without cooperation and buy-in from the community. It's critically important."
Throughout the forum, incumbent Allen Dyer repeatedly referenced what he saw as failings of the current board, and said open communication with the public is something the board had ignored.
"(Gordon and Giles) have spoken eloquently about community involvement, but their actions are just the opposite," he said. "It's hard for the community to have a back-and-forth ... it's important that we as a community look at the candidates running and bring fresh blood to the board ... it's time for (Giles, Gordon and Janet Siddiqui) to move on."
Focusing on the students of Howard County was chief among the other candidates' remarks, as Siddiqui spoke to the importance ofchildren's health, which can influence academics in either positive or negative ways.
"(We need to) instill values at a younger age, and make sure everyone is in tune with what's going on with the health in their lives," she said. "It will make a difference in academic achievement."
Candidates also discussed the importance of closing the achievement gap, and celebrating the growing diversity of the county.
"When we talk about the gap, we say things like attendance and graduation as measures of that gap," said Jim Adams. "My understanding is that we're at 90 percent graduation and 95 percent attendance. It's those last few feet that'll kill you, and we have to do something about it ... if you remember your schooling, there was somebody who took an interest in you. We need to do that with our students, let them know we're interested in them as individuals. We have ways of doing that."
Other candidates stressed parental and community engagement as a way to close the achievement gap and face the challenge and opportunity diversity brings.
"We have to really embrace (diversity) honestly, willing to embrace the value of diversity in the community as a gift, and it needs to be reflected in the classroom," said Jackie Scott. "Are students being exposed to teachers of all races, all cultures, are they being embraced at all levels of the school system as values of what can really be taught?"
Innovations in technology were also front and center, as candidates stressed the need for staying ahead of the technological curve, with many lauding the new digital school program the board recently approved.
The greatest technology, said David Gertler, is the technology that hasn't been created yet, and the system needs a long-term plan to accommodate the unforeseen.
"There's some amazing things just within our grasp," he said. "I want to work with the board to put a long-term plan — five-, 10-year plan — in place to totally reinvent the way education is delivered, consumed and taught. We won't get there tomorrow or next year, but we need to start thinking about the future of technology."
Technology has the ability to individualize learning for each student, said Leslie Kornreich, which is what the system needs in the era of standardized test and one-size-fits-all education. Evaluating teachers on the performance of students, she said, may be the downfall of that approach.
While several candidates spoke out against standardized testing, many said the board needed standardized metrics to measure the effectiveness of policies it passes.
"It's difficult to determine if anything is working," said Ann De Lacy. "The committees that oversee or implement policies are so driven top-down by the central office that there's very little community or stakeholder (input). We need metrics to measure outcomes."
Metrics, some said, would lead to greater accountability.
"The board should be accountable for the policies they put in place," said Olga Butler. "They're put in place for a reason ... there's not ways to measure the success of those policies and whether they're effective, and the board should have some way to measure that, so it can be reviewed whether it's working or should be abolished."
Candidates disagreed on the role police officers should play in county schools, or whether they belong there at all. While Owen Hanratty said he believed officers had a negative impact in schools, Mary Jo Neil said increased security in schools is no different from increased security at malls or airports.
"We can't ignore the fact our world is changing," she said, referencing the recent shootings in Chardon, Ohio. "The crimes kids are committing are much more serious."