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Carroll County Board of Education candidates answer questions ahead of 2020 election

The Carroll County Board of Education has two open spots in this year’s election, and four candidates are vying for those roles. The Times sent pivotal questions via email to each candidate: Stephanie R. Brooks, Virginia R. Harrison, Marsha B. Herbert, and Donna Sivigny. Here are their responses, in full and with edits for clarity.

Q: What is your background? Please share any personal or career details you feel are relevant to this race.

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Brooks: I am a mom of two children who attend CCPS. My career is in Retirement Planning. I have worked with corporate clients to administer their retirement plans, managed associates who have administered retirement plans and for the last several years have worked in project management executing legal, regulatory and technology projects managing deliverables, cost and time savings and budgets. I am a member of my firms Associate Advisory Council, the current Chair of CCPS Community Advisory Council, am the current President of my Homeowners Association and have served previously on the CCPS Security Advisory Council as well as school PTA boards.

Harrison: I have lived in Sykesville for 43 years. I have two kids, Tai West and Tiane Harrison. I worked for the FBI for 8½ years. Then I opened Dressing By Virginia (42 years). Civic Leadership: Education That’s Multicultural Council, Carroll County Dept. of Social Service, Carroll County School Ethics Panel, Carroll County Career and Technology Council. CCPS Education Foundation, and CCPS Regional Minority Forums. I served 8½ years on CCPS School Board.

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Herbert: I am Marsha Herbert, currently Vice President of the Carroll County Board of Ed. I am a life-long resident of Carroll County, I taught school for over 40 years in the system along with coaching Varsity Sports Teams, Department Chair, Student Class Advisor, and many other committees. I am currently on the State Legislative Committee for MABE, I am also the Ambassador to 11 schools. I also own County Hill Farm, a 40-acre horse farm in Westminster where I grew up. We offer lessons, leases, and host horse shows.

Sivigny: First and foremost, my family includes my wonderful husband Jay of 28 years, and two children Grace (age 14) and Evan (age 12). We live in Finksburg, and have been active residents of Carroll County for more than 20 years. My children are currently in the school system, and I have a vested interest in making sure they get a very high-quality education.

I have served almost 4 years on the Carroll County Board of Education, one as Vice President and two as President. However, just being on the Board does not make you qualified. Driving change and getting results is what makes a candidate uniquely qualified. I believe my collaborative leadership style and vision is what differentiates me from all other candidates.

I have developed strong relationships with the key stakeholders that we need to support CCPS. This includes the Board of Commissioners, our State Delegates, local Mayors, local law enforcement, and more recently the local Health Department leadership. These relationships are critical to ensure key aspects related to funding, safety, and capital improvements are met. I am also an actuary, and a recognized business leader. I bring a proven track record of strategic and financial problem-solving experience to the table. I have strong communication skills, and I will continue to provide a passionate, active voice in advocating for our students, our teachers, and our community.

Given my background and my experience gained over the last 4 years, I believe that I am uniquely qualified to continue serving on the BOE.

Q: How would you rate the job the Board of Education has done in navigating the pandemic and have teachers, in particular, been treated fairly?

SB: No one in this country had a game plan for a pandemic. In the beginning the school system was taking direction directly from the state. After the end of the 2019-2020 school year the state fell short in providing direction and left each county to fend for themselves. Most counties are following a similar plan with Carroll County being one of the first to go back to school using a hybrid model. Carroll County also took into consideration students at the Career and Technology Center who needed their course hours for certification purposes as well as students with special needs. Where we fell short as a County was with the amount of time it took to finalize how we were going back to school. Parents and educators alike were waiting for this information in order to be able to make decisions for their families and careers. It is in that respect that I feel a disservice was done.

The board had to make a decision before parents and educators could make decisions. At the end of the day, the board decided to go back virtually to start as did every other county in the state ― the difference was, Carroll County took almost the entire time allotted to make that decision whereas other counties came to that conclusion earlier on in the process.

As for teachers being treated fairly, I think everyone in entitled to their own feelings. If teachers, or a group of teachers, or the teachers union feel that they have not been treated fairly then a discussion should be had between them and the Board of Education. While the Board of Education should rightfully be focused on providing the best possible education for students, they also need to be concerned about providing an appropriate support system for the educators including keeping an open line of communication. The decisions made by the Board of Education are not carried out by the Board of Education, they are carried out by the educators.

VH: The pandemic has changed the way we look at everything now. It’s about health and well-being. I believe the BOE has lost sight of how our school system works collaboratively as a team. Our teachers are mothers, fathers, caretakers, as well as every employee and students that come to our building. I would give them a C-plus.

MH: When COVID-19 hit, CCPS was the first out of the box with virtual school in the spring. It wasn’t perfect, but many lessons were learned. While graduations were very different with individual time slots, students were still able to make memories and safely celebrate with their educators and family. Disadvantaged children were fed 3 meals a day at various locations around the county. Our talented educators completed over 1,000 hours of virtual online service and worked extremely hard over the summer to prepare for the Fall. We have worked tirelessly with our Health Officer, Ed Singer, along with MSDE and the State and County to produce a re-opening plan.

Small group instruction started in August with volunteer educators. Thousands of laptops were handed out along with internet connection devices. CCPS has worked with educators that have compromising conditions and provided educators with child care accommodations for their with school aged children that attend CCPS schools. As a former educator myself, I cannot thank our CCPS educators enough for their hard work and dedication to our students. They have truly gone above and beyond, overcoming numerous challenges to support and educate their students during these unprecedented times.

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DS: I believe the BOE has exhibited strong leadership throughout the pandemic. While several neighboring counties took many weeks to months to develop virtual learning in the Spring, Carroll County was able to get our students up and running within 2 weeks. Our Food Services team prepared and delivered thousands of meals to needy families. The BOE worked to ensure our graduating Seniors were able to get some in-person recognition to commemorate their achievements. Carroll was one of very few counties in Maryland to do so. Throughout the summer, we did virtual recovery instruction and we held in-person “Jumpstart” programs at the end of the summer.

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We also handed out laptops to over 10,000 of our students, and worked through connectivity issues throughout the county. We have ordered laptops for every high school student, which should arrive soon. To start the fall school year, we planned and set up a significantly enhanced virtual environment. Carroll County started 100% virtual, but quickly added in-person programs for Special Education and Career and Tech. Lacking any state guidance, the BoE began planning metrics for when it would be safe to re-open. In late August, the Governor, the State Superintendent and the Deputy Health Director stated that COVID-19 metrics had improved throughout the State and that Maryland schools should start the re-opening process. With that guidance, the Board of Education voted for a Hybrid re-opening for October 19th.

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The planning and staffing challenges have been difficult, but leadership and guidance by the BOE has put us in the position to open as safely as possible on October 19th, in support of the 70% of families that are requesting in-person instruction for their students. This is in alignment with State guidance and also aligns with the fact that schools throughout neighboring states, the country and the rest of the world are re-opening. While COVID has presented many challenges, the BOE has had open and transparent conversations to address the difficult issues, and I believe that all members of CCPS have been treated fairly. We were able to provide raises for our CCPS employees this summer, despite an economy that was struggling, and we are making many accommodations for our educators this Fall. Certainly, the past 7 months have been difficult, but our staff and educators have done an amazing job and I want to thank them all for their tireless efforts.

Q: What are your thoughts about how online learning will be utilized, post-pandemic?

SB: I want to see online learning continue to evolve. There are so many reasons why this should be part of our “new normal” going forward. Students who aren’t able to be in school, for instance in the event of a surgery, could still participate and keep up with classes. Instead of the traditional homeschool environment, we could utilize online learning ensuring that the approved curriculum is being taught. We could have a virtual teacher that teaches a class that goes across schools and isn’t specific to just a single school. I strongly feel that this is something we need to continue to build out and invest in.

VH: Online learning is going to be the new norm. I think we have found new way of getting our kids to use technology and showing them new ways they can learning.

MH: CCPS will eventually return to full in-person instructions, but there will still be a need to continue with online learning. If the state approves Dr. Lockard’s petition to the state to allow CCPS to go virtual on snow days, snow days will be a thing of the past. All high school students shall be able take the classes they need to meet graduation requirements in proper succession. In prior years, smaller high schools have to schedule classes every other year to meet their student needs. Smaller high schools cannot provide the variety of classes a large high school has the ability to provide. A class that invites a guest speaker, others may join, if pertinent to the topic. Homeschooling for ill students should change to allow students to join their classes. Online streaming of athletic events will be starting through the Carroll Media Center. IEP meetings will be able to held virtually and reduce travel time for all involved.

DS: While I am a firm believer in the traditional model for education, with every crisis, you need to look for the silver lining. I believe that the virtual model for instruction does have a place in CCPS moving forward. Perhaps not quite as much with Special Education or elementary school students, although there may be some opportunities for specialized online resources and tools for our Special Education student population. But I think at the older ages, the virtual model and the utilization of technology, backed up by a strong instructional technology curriculum, could make for even more pathways for student success ― including access to additional world languages, AP and government classes, Career and Technology programs and certifications, Advanced Academic programs, and dual enrollment opportunities. It could also be used in very targeted ways, like access to tutoring and intervention resources, as well as coverage for snow days and sick days for students. Additionally, it could be used to provide services and support to homeschool families, thus attracting these families back to the public school system and resulting in higher overall funding.

How we utilize this new delivery system needs to be looked at, but just as businesses learned that remote working has a place, I believe that remote teaching and learning also has a place.

Q: There will likely be repercussions for students from last spring and this fall that could include learning loss and lower test scores, mental and emotional health issues and parents taking kids out of public schools. Going forward, how will you address these types of issues?

SB: In order to catch students up without stressing them out we’re going to need more resources. That doesn’t necessarily mean that we need to hire more staff, it could mean better community partnerships. Working with organizations who can help CCPS asses students to see where they are academically and emotionally. Having someone who can help create a learning recovery plan to catch students up that doesn’t involve hours upon hours of extra work for the students which could negatively impact their mental and emotional health. I really feel like it’s going to take a lot of work to pull this off, and we’re going to need the communities help to do it. I’m definitely not against hiring more staff to get this done, it’s something that would have to be prioritized in the budget and we’d have to figure out how we could do that. One idea would be to have substitute teachers come in to help teachers with this type of assessment. It would be great if we could have former teachers in that pool of substitutes as they’re already trained to do learning assessments and could potentially pick up on things that someone else may not.

VH: We’ve had a lot of the same issues in the past, not as many as now. I‘m confident that CCPS is working together with all the stakeholders to get their kids’ needs met as soon as possible. CCPS has community partnered with the Boys and Girls Club of Westminster and the Carroll County Public Library.

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MH: I am very concerned about the loss of time and contact with our students because there is nothing better than an educator interacting in-person with a room full of students. Our student’s mental, social, and emotional needs will need to be addressed along with inequalities present for special education, special needs, and disadvantaged students. CCPS has been holding small group instruction and slowly reopening for select students in need of in-person learning since August. The Career and Tech Center has been holding hybrid classes since September 14th, and currently 400 students are attending each week. Gateway/Crossroads started hybrid the week of September 28th. The Autism Program, BEST Program, Carroll Springs School, and the PREP program started September 14th. LFI students [started] in-person on October 8th. The hybrid schedule will begin October 19th.

MCAP testing will be completed this fall. The results will indicate our areas of need. CCPS will have to provide small group instruction for individuals in need in their specific area. Guidance counselors, school psychologists, PPWs, and other student services will be diligently contacting students on individual needs.

DS: These repercussions aren’t merely “likely” ... many have already happened and will need to be addressed. Specifically, CCPS has experienced approximately an 800-student reduction in enrollment due to the shutdown, losing students to private schools and home schooling, based on the strong desire for in-person instruction. This represents a potentially huge budgetary shortfall from the state for education, and will require a skilled financial hand and problem-solver willing to work closely with our state delegates and Commissioners to implement “hold harmless” language into 2021 funding to help mitigate the impact.

With respect to test scores, we haven’t yet administered the formal testing to identify how much learning loss our students have experienced. But I fear that it will be significant, and will only worsen the longer we remain in an all-virtual environment. This is especially true for our disadvantaged students and our special needs students, and that’s why I believe it is so important to return to in-person learning to ensure we don’t lose further ground.

For me, the first step is to halt learning losses by getting back to in-person instruction, then work with students at the individual level to assess where they are academically and socially/emotionally, and develop intervention and recovery plans to recapture as much as we can.

With respect to mental and emotional health issues, that was already a concern prior to the pandemic that we were beginning to address. As part of the last budget cycle, the BOE voted to increase the number of school psychologists, as well as additional special needs resources, to address the growing needs of our students. These folks have been hired and are in place now. We also intend to add more school counselors as additional funding becomes available. Individual intervention plans will also need to be developed to address mental health and emotional issues that have only worsened due to the pandemic.

Q: A few Carroll County schools are maxed out and others are underutilized in terms of enrollment. What is your solution for this?

SB: One of the things that I don’t feel was done effectively after school closures several years ago, we redistricting. No one wants to have to redistrict, and the perfect time to have done so was when schools were closing. That being said, it isn’t fair to students or educators to be in an overcrowded environment. Students lose out on one on one instruction and the work load increases with class size increase for educators. It’s hard to say that the number one goal is to provide the best possible education in a safe environment if you’re not going to look at providing the best possible learning opportunities for all students which includes being in a school that is not overcrowded with large class sizes.

VH: CCPS keeps a record every year to watch the enrollments and drop out. They have a projection that they use for metrics to maintain how they control enrollment. It works for them.

MH: CCPS has a Freedom Elementary Redistricting Committee. Their last report was May 2020. The Board decided to suspend the Committee’s work until it may resume in a more traditional manner. CCPS will continue to watch enrollment and projections. CCPS will post any change in status and notify the community. Once the committee resumes, they will report to the board, followed by public hearings, community input, and a board work session, followed by a vote. The community must be involved in any and all proposed solutions. We must hear from the citizens of Carroll County before any decision is made.

DS: My recommended solution is Targeted Redistricting. We are already addressing this concern, and discussions are underway with the Freedom Redistricting Committee.

Q: Staff diversity has been a CCPS issue for some time now. Why do you think Carroll hasn’t been able to hire more Black and Hispanic teachers, what do you think is a realistic goal going forward and how should the school system be held accountable?

SB: I think that you have to look at the actual demographic make-up of Carroll County in order to obtain a realistic goal. I agree, there is a lack of diversity in CCPS, but there’s also a lack of diversity in Carroll County in general. For CCPS, an example that I recently used was my children’s elementary school. The only male teachers that have been at the school in the last 8 years were the physical education teachers. How many young male students have thought that men can only be physical education teachers? How many students have been in school and felt that none of their teachers could possibly understand them or what they’re going through because they’re not “like them?”

We must do better and I know that there has been effort put into making this a priority. Recruitment is key ― what do we have to offer in CCPS that makes working in this school system more appealing? Why are educators in general working in other counties? Most people want to work where they live, but I know several educators that live in Carroll County that teach in other counties. We need to do some root cause analysis to get this turned around.

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VH: Hiring teachers has always been difficult. No. 1, the minority rate is very low in Carroll County. No. 2, outside of this county we have a reputation of being racist county. No. 3, our pay is not competitive. A lot of new teachers have student loans. I feel CCPS is doing a good job of trying to recruit the minority teachers by taking the NAACP to help recruit new teachers.

I feel that has been successful. Once they are all here in Carroll County we need to make sure that they feel welcome and a part of the team. Sometimes that does not always happen.

MH: We have a fantastic team at CCPS focusing on hiring a more diverse group of educators. Chantress Baptist leads the recruiting team and travels to various areas of the country to hire diverse employees. In fact, Chantress Baptist was preparing to have a recruiting day at the Board of Education and unfortunately school was closed. Human Resources is currently looking at online recruiting options. Judy Jones, the CCPS Equity and Inclusion officer, has also hosted a Multicultural Expo Day for the past several years which celebrates diversity, community, and acknowledges differences. Dancing, crafts, games, magic shows, classes, and chat sessions that focus on diversity are hosted throughout the day. Various food trucks from around the state come and prepare lunch for participants. Judy also hosts small groups chats around the county for courageous conversation. New and diverse employees are invited to other evening activities throughout the school year to keep the lines of communication open. During my time on the board, the CCPS Equity Policy has been updated and expanded upon to further prioritize equality for both our educators and students.

DS: I think the biggest challenge is the current demographic of Carroll County. People want to work where they live and live where they work. As such, we don’t have a large minority population to draw from in Carroll, so we will need to attract and retain minority talent from outside our County to improve staff diversity.

Laying some of the groundwork has been very important ... we have developed a new and robust equity policy for the school system, as well as a Strategic Plan with metrics for accountability. We have developed specific metrics to increase staff diversity and minority retention, and several HR initiatives are underway.

As far as attracting minority talent, our HR team has collaborated with minority educators and community partners to attend job fairs and other recruiting events throughout the region. As for retention, we have an excellent Director of Equity and Community Outreach, who has been developing and conducting diversity training throughout the organization, increasing awareness and participation in the annual Culture Expo, and bringing together minority employee support groups.

Q: The Tech Center renovation project is underway and plans are set for a new East Middle School. What is your level of concern about the age and/or condition of any other current school buildings?

SB: We like to laugh about this in our house because my daughter is currently in the school that her great grandmother went to high school in. In all seriousness, we must do a better job of maintaining our buildings. No building should get to the point that East Middle school is at. (Shout out to East Middle school because even though the building isn’t great, the educators, faculty and staff there are absolutely AMAZING!!!) It seems that investing in our building wasn’t a priority for prior boards and commissioners, but I think it’s on everyone’s radar now so I don’t anticipate that we’ll see something as significant as East Middle school happen in the near future.

VH: CCPS every year has a list of the repairs for each school. They ask for the money every year, but it’s up to the commissioners to say yes or no. CCPS has no other choice. It has been over 20 years that the Career and Tech center has been trying to get that building updated. I’m excited that it’s happening.

MH: CCPS just held a CIP Hearing on September 30th. Each school in the county receives a score, (FCI) Facilities Condition Index, which includes age,improvements and repairs needed. This is a part of the Educational Facilities Master Plan. This evaluation is presented to the board in May every year. Such repairs could include HVAC, Roof Repairs, Electrical Projects. The board is presented the Educational Facilities Master Plan every year that includes the FCI score of every building. Once approved, the next step is for the staff to develop our Capital Budget and Capital Improvements Program Request. This program is very well planned until 2029. Our schools are aging, but with the hard work of our maintenance department and custodial staff’s dedication they have prolonged the life of our schools. After living through the former Board’s decision to close North Carroll High School and experiencing the negative impact it had on the community, I can confidently say I will NEVER vote to close a school.

DS: The Career and Tech Center project has been in the works for a very long time, and finally under the current BOE’s leadership and strong collaboration with the Commissioners, it has become a reality. The East Middle situation has also been hotly debated over the years, and we now have a path forward. These projects include a significant capital investment at both the local and state levels.

With respect to the age and condition of our other schools, CCPS will continue to make significant progress with roof and HVAC system replacements, as well as other miscellaneous renovations as part of the Capital Improvement Plan. We have also begun staging discussions for the schools that are next in line for full renovation.

Additionally, I have worked directly with staff to develop an aggregate Facility Condition Index (FCI) to track the overall condition of our buildings. We have also set metrics in the Strategic Plan to ensure that the overall FCI score does not show deterioration of our buildings over time, and we have a solid understanding of the long-term capital funding commitment necessary to meet this goal. This score has enabled better understanding and communication with the Commissioners and has improved our long-term planning and decision-making process.

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Q: What is your biggest priority, what will be your signature issue for CCPS, over the next four years, if elected?

SB: There are many things that I am passionate about when it comes to the school system, however, my top priorities are mental health, better support for our students and educators, diversity and inclusion and technology. I want to make sure that talking about mental health becomes the new norm because no one should have to struggle in silence. I want to make sure that our students and educators feel supported, that includes adding more guidance counselors and instructional aides. I want to make sure that not only are we becoming more diverse, but that it’s in the right places. I want to see my vision for virtual learning implemented including having access to computers for all students ― set up for successful non-distracted learning.

VH: My biggest priority is to be a part of the team that it should be now. The board is five people working collaboratively for the betterment of the whole school system.

MH: The first thing that comes to mind is to get back to a new normalcy. CCPS must make sure that all of our students have had their mental, social, emotional needs met. Inequalities with special education, special needs and disadvantage students need to be addressed. Secondly, MCAP testing will begin this Fall and we will gain more insight into the impact and effectiveness of virtual learning. Results will be reviewed and students with deficits will receive small group instruction that they lost due to the school closures. All third graders need to be reading on grade level and all students need to complete Algebra I by 8th grade. Thirdly, we must continue to strategically plan for new projects and improvements through a five-year, zero-based budget. We must continue to provide fair and competitive salaries to our educators. Fourthly, student achievement is key and we must continue to ensure that our students are college OR career ready. The Career and Tech Center expansion will allow students to pursue a successful career in both the traditional and non-traditional trades, without the need to attend college.

Finally, we must overcome the challenges presented by COVID-19 and continue to make improvements for Carroll County’s children and families. If re-elected the board, I will continue to be a strong advocate for parents, students, educators, and taxpayers.

DS: My biggest priority is student achievement. This was my signature issue in 2016 and remains the same for the next 4 years. Many candidates will say this is their most important priority, however, it’s essential to understand exactly what candidates have done in the past and how they plan to make improvements moving forward.

In the short-term ... to address student achievement and prevent further learning losses from the pandemic, I want to return to in-person learning as quickly and safely as possible with our hybrid model. This re-opening will be a significant challenge, but it’s one we must undertake for the benefit of our students. We will then need to assess where our students are academically and create recovery plans, including tutoring and intervention strategies at the individual level.

Another key element to student achievement is Access. Whether it be part of Career and Technology Education (CTE), Advanced Academics, virtual learning, internships, dual enrollment, or apprenticeships, we need to provide and demonstrate multiple pathways of learning where there is something for every student that they can believe in and excel. We are bringing the Career and Tech project to fruition, as part of our vision for the future of CTE. We are also creating an enhanced technology platform, which will improve curriculum and access for all of our students.

We have fixed the structural budget issues, which has allowed us to provide solid raises for our educators and staff for each of the last four years. Competitive compensation will remain a focus to ensure that we can attract and retain highly qualified teachers to help our students achieve to their fullest potential.

During the last round of State testing, Carroll County was rated the number one school district in the State for combined Math and ELA scores. These strong results are a function of Strategic Planning, a commitment to a culture of continuous improvement, a dedicated and outstanding workforce at CCPS, and an incredible community.

With the support of Carroll County voters, I look forward to the opportunity to build on these academic successes over the next four years.

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