In an election cycle full of dramatic twists on the national scene, there’s a first-ever local election with candidates whose potential power belies the small number of lawn signs and voter mailings they can afford to put out.
Whoever is elected to the seven Baltimore County school board positions this year will wield enormous influence in setting the direction of schools for years to come. They will decide how about $1.5 billion — or half the county’s budget — is spent, who the next superintendent will be and where new schools are built.
“The school board election is one of the most important issues on the ballot,” said County Executive Don Mohler. “We know that schools are what anchor communities. They are the soul of their community….The stability of our schools is an economic issue.”
The turnover of leadership comes amid some of the most tumultuous times in the school system’s recent past.
The former superintendent, Dallas Dance, served time in jail this year for failing to disclose part time jobs that earned him $147,000, including one with a company doing business with the school system. A comprehensive audit was initiated to look at contracts during his tenure.
Despite pockets of excellence, students are performing well below the state average on annual standardized tests. But the school board rarely talks about academic achievement. Instead, its meetings have been mired by angry discourse and a minority rebellion.
And in an unprecedented move, the state superintendent last spring scuttled the county school board’s appointment of Interim Superintendent Verletta White to the permanent post. White was then given another one-year interim term, which expires July 1.
The new board members will take their seats in December, and will immediately need to begin a search for the next permanent superintendent.
Of the 12 seats on the school board, seven are elected in council districts. Six of the seats are contested races, while current school board member Julie Henn is running unopposed.
Four other seats on the board will be appointed by Gov. Larry Hogan before December. One member of the board is a student chosen by the governor.
Hogan must pick from a list of nine people, whose names were submitted by a county nominating commission. The names of those submitted to the governor have not been made public.
In a school system where the majority of kids are students of color, some residents have expressed concern about whether there will be diversity on the board. Nominating commissioner chair Aaron Plymouth said the names that were sent to the governor “do reflect the diversity of the county.”
As for the seven elected seats, only two races feature candidates of color. District four has two black candidates — Makeda Scott and Kathleen White. In the second district, a white man, Tony Glasser, is running against Cheryl Pasteur, a black former educator.
Whether they are elected or appointed, the newly constituted school board could be made up of as many as six of the current members, including four who have voted as a block against many initiatives of the the current administration.
The two members whose seats are assured are student Haleemat Adekoya, a senior at Milford Mill Academy whose term expires at the end of June, and Julie Henn who is running unopposed in the fifth councilmanic district. Board member Kathleen Causey, who is running in the third district and won her primary with 50 percent of the vote, could also remain. She faces Paul Konka in the general election in Nov. 6.
Most other current board members indicated they have not sought a gubernatorial appointment. Ann Miller, whose appointment was contentious and has been the most outspoken member representing the minority, refused to say whether she applied for an appointed position. Roger Hayden declined to say whether he sent his name to the commission, and Emory Young did not respond.
If Hayden and Miller were to be reappointed to the board, the outspoken group of four, who are endorsing a slate of candidates they would like to see elected, would likely attempt to gain allies on a new board.
Hayden, Miller, Henn and Causey voted against Verletta White becoming the permanent superintendent last spring and also have been outspoken critics of the program that gave a laptop to each student. And they are now interested in rewriting the discipline policies to require harsher consequences.
Mohler is among those who have expressed concern about the current board’s dysfunction.
“There have been these — reflective of national politics — these tribal battles where people go into their corners and don’t listen to one another,” he said.
Mohler said he would like the new board to pledge to change the tone of the discussion going forward, and see the board “model civility and treat each other with dignity and respect.”
In the past several months, the student member has been one of the only voices on the board to call for compromise. During a heated discussion in July, Adekoya pleaded for the board to look at itself as the reason for its stalemate.
“We are probably causing us not getting anything done. It doesn’t cost anything for us to work together. It is for the children,” she said.
Each candidate for an elected position was asked what they consider their highest priority and how they would end an era of board dysfunction.
First council district (Catonsville area, southwest Baltimore County)
Matt Gresick, a 38-year-old Howard County high school social studies teacher, is running against Lisa Mack, 60, a retired Verizon executive and former community college English teacher.
Gresick believes the county can do better for “our schools, our teachers and our kids.”
“For me, it is about empowering educators and making sure they feel they can build those relationships with kids,” he said.
Gresick said he wants equity in resources and school buildings across the county.
Mack would focus on ensuring students aren’t pushed along to the next grade unless they have mastered the material. She finds student test scores unacceptable.
“I don’t think anyone in the county wants to be the county of barely average students,” she said.
She hopes the new school board members will not engage in stonewalling. “I find that discouraging,” she said. She said many of the people running for the board are the “right kind of people.”
Second council district (Pikesville and northwest Baltimore County)
Tony Glasser, 56, an optometrist, is running against Cheryl Pasteur, 69, a retired Randallstown High School principal.
Pasteur would put her focus in the classroom and discipline.
“There is not an adequate amount of time spent talking about what is really going on in the classroom,” she said, adding that good instruction and good discipline are linked. “The bottom line is instruction.”
Pasteur believes the dysfunction on the board would be alleviated if there was less focus on ego and more on the children. “Let’s deal in reality not in personality,” she said.
Glasser would reevaluate the role of laptops in the classroom. He believes every child doesn’t need a device. A more appropriate option, he believes, would be laptops on carts that could be rolled between classrooms. He questions that amount of time children should spend in front of screens, and would redirect operating funds into the capital budget to pay for new schools.
“We can’t be a leader in technology with schools sinking into the ground,” he said.
Third council district (Hereford, northern Baltimore County)
Kathleen Causey, 53, a current board member, is running against Paul Konka, a retired supervisory accountant, adjunct professor and Baltimore County substitute teacher.
Causey said her top priority is professional development training for board members on their responsibilities so they understand what “effective governing” is.
“If there is a board member or two or three that don’t understand our legal role then that will negatively impact every decision going forward,” she said.
Causey believes a new board retreat could help members come together.
Konka’s top priority is to focus on having the public regain trust in the school system after Dance’s conviction.
“I think there is a lot of concern about what is happening in the Baltimore County Public Schools and therefore we need to address the issue,” he said.
He also said the current board has been filled with too much division. “There is a lot of hollering that goes back and forth and not a lot of listening,” he said.
Fourth council district (western Baltimore County)
Makeda Scott, 46, a PTA leader who works in information technology, is running against Kathleen White, a longtime educator.
Scott’s agenda is “making sure our students get the adequate resources they need.”
She would like to see more social workers available for children in need and smaller class sizes.
Scott said it is imperative that board members begin to work in a unified way. “I think there needs to be real, honest conversations with board members” about what went wrong with the old board and what can be done to move forward collaboratively.
“Children don’t really care about our issues or political affiliation,” she said. “But they are about after-school activities and seeing their teachers. I think we need to get back to basics.”
After hiring the next superintendent, White said, “my first priority will be to look at overall student achievement.”
She believes literacy instruction and school climate are central to student success.
“Another one of the my issues will be to make sure we have collaboration,” she said.
Fifth council district (northeastern Baltimore County)
Julie Henn, a current school board member, is running unopposed.
Sixth council district (northeastern Baltimore County)
Edward Kitlowski, 60, a retired Baltimore County school teacher, is running against against Lily Rowe, 43, a parent activist.
Kitlowski believes the first priority is to bring “integrity and transparency and availability” to the board.
“A lot of people are distrustful of what is happening in the schools,” he said. He believes the board should be more active in running the school system rather than giving all the responsibility to the superintendent. More teacher voices are needed, he said.
Rowe, who is a frequent critic of the school system, has worked with Comptroller Peter Franchot to pressure the school system to have air conditioning in all schools.
“The most important issue facing the school system right now is that we have a lot of problems with our organizational effectiveness such that the school houses aren’t getting the support they need,” she said.
Seventh council district (Dundalk, southeast Baltimore County)
William Feuer, 37, a tax adviser, is running against Rod McMillion, 65, a Baltimore County high school teacher who would have to retire if elected to the board.
Feuer and McMillion agree that the hiring of a new superintendent is the board’s highest priority. But while McMillion would consider choosing the interim superintendent for the post, Feuer said “as you can see our current superintendent has no respect for accountability and transparency.”
Feuer believes new members will be elected for their ideas and that it would be difficult to change the interactions of individual board members. “You can’t force everyone to play nice in the sandbox,” he said.
McMillion said much of the board disagreement appears to fall along party lines, with the Republican minority fighting the Democratic majority. An independent for the majority of his life, McMillion said party doesn’t matter to him. “I am going to vote on the merits of the topic,” he said.