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Education

Maryland school board elections attract first-time candidates, few incumbents to races amid culture wars

Maryland’s nonpartisan school board races this fall have attracted first-time candidates, but few incumbents, as the nation’s culture wars spill into the public education arena.

More than 50 candidates from Baltimore City and Baltimore, Carroll, Harford and Howard counties filed before the April 15 deadline to run for about 20 open school board seats. Some of them say they were driven to run after becoming activists in their communities. Others were motivated to join the politicized debates over public health mandates, LGBTQ+ rights in the classroom and curriculums addressing history and race.

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Since school board elections in Maryland are nonpartisan, the votes take place in November and not during the primary in July. This year’s race includes two newly-created seats in Baltimore City as it transitions to a hybrid board of elected and appointed commissioners.

School board members have faced intense scrutiny during the COVID-19 pandemic, which abruptly pushed classrooms into homes and turned families’ attentions to high-profile policy decisions. Despite grassroots conservative recruitment efforts around the region, the races have failed to attract substantial numbers of candidates in the Baltimore region. And few incumbents are running for re-election in jurisdictions such as Baltimore County that faced steady public pressure throughout the pandemic.

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Contentious school board races in Maryland were rare in recent years, but candidates’ willingness to take stances on education’s hottest debates may foreshadow partisan school board elections in November.

Pandemic turns public attention to schools

As the pandemic and Black Lives Matters protests of 2020 brought high-stakes policy decisions to the nation’s school boards, clashes broke out between parents, teachers, students, administrators, health experts and elected leaders. And declines in student proficiency in key subjects coupled with mental health and behavioral issues and staffing shortages have motivated many to speak out during recent board meetings.

Not so long ago, Baltimore City school board candidate Salimah Jasani was one of them.

“I fundamentally believe people who are most impacted by policy decisions are the experts on them,” Jasani said.

The 29-year-old was a special educator at Digital Harbor High School when she discovered her energy for community organizing and advocacy work, particularly when it came to educational equity. She currently works as an educational consultant.

“I’ll be fighting regardless if I get elected,” Jasani said of her advocacy work.

She faces seven competitors in the city’s first school board election in recent history. The board is expanding this year from 10 appointed commissioners to include two elected seats following a successful Baltimore Teachers Union campaign to change the law.

Representation on the board is crucial, Jasani said, for teachers and for students who “sit at an intersection of multiple identities.” That may include students of color, those living in poverty, English language learners and those without reliable internet access, she said.

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Jasani identifies as a member of the disability community and hopes to represent their interests in the school system. Throughout the pandemic, some disability rights advocates and parents spoke out about the particular struggles facing students with specialized learning needs and worried that public health mandates were being lifted from schools in haste.

School boards have played a pivotal role at times in moving Maryland public education into more flexible policies on masking, COVID testing and vaccinations.

For example, Carroll County’s school board filed a lawsuit in February challenging the Maryland State Board of Education’s masking requirement in schools. State leaders later ended the measure on March 1. Eight people have filed to run for three available seats on the Carroll County Board of Education, two of whom are incumbents.

Patricia Dorsey, who has filed to keep her seat on Carroll’s school board, told the Carroll County Times in March that much of her current term was spent dealing with the pandemic. If reelected, she plans to help the system move past issues caused by the public health crisis.

Politics in school board races

Maryland school board races are nonpartisan by law, but candidates are gravitating toward hot-button issues in education such as transgender student and staff rights or curriculum covering gender identity, sexuality, race and slavery.

For Linfeng Chen, a candidate running for Howard County school board, the push to diversify curriculum hits closer to home. After moving to Howard in 2010, Chen said Asian American students often approached him with stories of being treated like outsiders.

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“Society has always treated Asian Americans as a perpetual foreigner,” Chen said. “People will ask [students], ‘Where are you from?’ and they will say, ‘I’m from Maryland.’ And then they may ask, ‘Where do you really come from?’ So the people are assuming they are not from here.”

Chen hopes to expand history curriculum to go beyond Eurocentric lessons. Some candidates in neighboring jurisdictions echo Chen’s goals for championing diversity in the classroom. They say they believe teacher demographics should better reflect the student body.

According to 2019 data from the Howard County school system, 80% of its teachers were white, while roughly a third of students were white, a quarter were Black and a fifth were Asian or Asian American. This academic year, the white student population decreased by one percentage point while Black and Asian student populations leveled out to around 24% each.

And Baltimore County schools found in 2020 that 84% of its teachers were white while the student body is very diverse — about 40% Black, 36% white, 12% Hispanic, 7% Asian and 5% multi-racial, according to the school system.

Understanding and planning for that diversity is important to Baltimore County candidate Jane Lichter.

“It’s a broader sense of, ‘Are we teaching our children to be good people and to be kind to one another and to be accepting?’” she said. “So to me, that’s the bigger picture.”

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Then there are candidates like Joseph Michael Collins, who does not believe there are diversity problems in Baltimore County schools. Rather, he believes that racial disparities are perceived but not necessarily real.

“If there is an instance [of inequity] in one of these schools, then it needs to be addressed,” Collins said. “Get the kids back on the right track. I mean, it’s that simple.”

In a similar mindset, Baltimore County candidate Maggie Litz Domanowski said the number one priority should be getting students to perform on grade level in reading and math, an issue that “does not have a color to it.”

As for discussion of the LGBTQ+ community in the classroom, some candidates in Baltimore County believe in inclusion — but only for older students. They say younger students’ minds are not fully developed and would not understand lessons on the queer community. Students may have same-sex parents, but those who don’t may not be ready to learn about it, they said.

And some candidates say such curriculum should be optional for high schoolers.

Mandates remain controversial

While Maryland officials have lifted statewide masking requirements, public health mandates are still on the minds of school board candidates in the Baltimore region while the pandemic endures.

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Baltimore City candidates like April Curley and Ashley Esposito support the use of public health mandates and watched closely as COVID cases rose in January following the winter break. Some community members and teachers said the school system’s decision to extend the break and temporarily switch schools to online learning didn’t go far enough.

“It’s very clear to me that we owe it to our educators and students to protect their lives, first and foremost,” Curley said of masking mandates. “Let’s save lives first, and then we can talk about what our strategy is to fill in the gaps.”

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Esposito said public school leaders need to consider community input when altering policies aimed at keeping schools healthy and safe for all.

“That’s why the whole elected school board positions are necessary,” Esposito said. “Yes, look at science and data. But also listen to the community.”

Others believe the decision to mask or vaccinate students should be left with parents. As a parent, Baltimore County candidate George W. Roycroft III said parents should be allowed to operate on a “to each his own” basis.

During the pandemic, school systems and Maryland State Department of Education have developed health mandates and guidelines based on the recommendations of health officials, epidemiologists and the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

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Still, schools have historically required a variety of vaccinations for students to enroll in school, Baltimore City candidate Kwame Kenyatta-Bey pointed out. Public education has faced threats like the pandemic before and will likely face more in the future, said Kenyatta-Bey, who is a Patterson High School teacher.

Public education needs leaders who are willing to take action when decisions may be unpopular, he said.

“What is there to be afraid of?” Kenyatta-Bey said. “If everybody agrees with everything you say, find another group.”


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