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Carroll County Board of Education candidates debate pandemic decision-making, lay out top priorities

The race for two openings on the Carroll County Board of Education is winding down, and the Times recently caught up with each of the four candidates to talk about current issues, including the difficulties posed by the COVID-19 pandemic, and what changes they seek to go after if elected.

Stephanie R. Brooks and Virginia R. Harrison are challenging incumbent board members Marsha B. Herbert, and Donna Sivigny.

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Brooks has two children in Carroll County Public Schools and is also active in PTA boards. She’s currently the chairwoman for the CCPS Community Advisory Council.

Harrison, a former school board member, has lived in Sykesville for over 40 years. She also worked for the FBI for over eight years, and has been involved in several civil leadership groups.

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Herbert, a lifelong Carroll County resident, taught and coached sports in the school system for over 40 years and worked on many committees along the way. She’s been on the Board of Education since 2016 and is on the Maryland Association of Boards of Education state legislative committee.

Sivigny has been on the Board of Education for the past four years, as a vice president and president, and she also has two children getting a CCPS education.

Sivigny, the board’s current president, and Herbert, the vice president, said the Board of Education has done the best it can in navigating the COVID-19 pandemic, while Brooks and Harrison had their reservations.

Carroll County Board of Education candidates in the 2020 general election, from left, Stephanie R. Brooks, Virginia R. Harrison, Marsha B. Herbert and Donna Sivigny.
Carroll County Board of Education candidates in the 2020 general election, from left, Stephanie R. Brooks, Virginia R. Harrison, Marsha B. Herbert and Donna Sivigny. (Courtesy Photo)

Whereas Sivigny and Herbert spoke highly of the board’s aggressive steps forward in virtual learning, Brooks said the county fell short in “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.”

Meanwhile, Harrison said the pandemic “changed the way we look at everything now,” and gave the board a grade of C-plus in how it handled itself. Harrison said the board “has lost sight of how our school system works collaboratively as a team.”

Sivigny credited the board for working together without much state guidance during most of the past seven months, amid the COVID-19 pandemic. And Herbert praised CCPS educators for going “above and beyond, overcoming numerous challenges to support and educate their students during these unprecedented times.”

Brooks said she wants to see online learning evolve in the future and sees it as part of a “new normal” going forward. Sivigny said she’d like to see CCPS using virtual learning to target certain aspects of the curriculum, such as tutoring and using snow days or sick days as coverage for students.

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

CCPS students are at risk of repercussions from last spring and this fall that could include learning loss or lower test scores, mental and emotional health issues, and the possibility of parents taking their children out of public schools.

Brooks said the school system is going to need more resources. That doesn’t necessarily mean hiring more staff, Brooks said, but rather a shift in focus. Partnering with outside organizations could benefit CCPS in that way, she said.

“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,” Brooks said.

Sivigny said repercussions are likely to have already taken place with some students. CCPS has experienced a reduction in enrollment of about 800 students, something that will require “a skilled financial hand,” she said, when it comes to a potential education funding shortfall from the state.

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Herbert said this fall’s Maryland Comprehensive Assessment Program test results will help indicate areas of need for CCPS, and the school system “will have to provide small group instruction for individuals in need in their specific area.”

A few CCPS buildings are at maximum capacity, while others are underutilized in terms of enrollment. Sivigny said her recommended solution is targeted redistricting, which is being discussed in the school system’s Freedom Redistricting Committee. Herbert said the committee’s previous report took place in May, but suspended progress until it could resume in a more traditional manner.

Brooks said it’s not fair to students or teachers to be in an overcrowded environment, and redistricting has been an issue for several years.

“Students lose out on one-on-one instruction and the work load increases with class size increase for educators,” she said. “It’s hard to say that the No. 1 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.”

Another longtime CCPS issue centers on staff diversity. Harrison noted that the county’s minority rate is low and that some people outside of Carroll consider racism to be a factor.

“Our pay is not competitive,” she said. “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.”

But Harrison said it’s up to CCPS to make any minority hires feel welcome once they arrive. Herbert said CCPS has a “fantastic” team tasked with hiring a more diverse group of educators, and Sivigny agreed along those lines.

Brooks said a lack of diversity in general is also a factor and she’d like to help figure out why so many teachers live in Carroll but choose to work elsewhere.

“We must do better, and I know that there has been effort put into making this a priority,” she said.

The Carroll County Career and Technology Center’s renovation is underway, and plans are in place for construction on a new East Middle School building to begin next summer. The candidates agreed that maintenance remains key to keeping other buildings from needing similar tuneups or being forced to shutter their doors.

“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,” Herbert said.

The candidates also discussed their biggest priorities over the next four years if elected.

Brooks placed focus on mental health for students and educators, and a push with technology going forward as well. “I want to make sure that talking about mental health becomes the new norm because no one should have to struggle in silence,” she said.

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Sivigny said her signature issue, as it was four years ago, remains centered on student achievement and building on the school system’s academic success. “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,” she said.

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Harrison said she will work on making the board work together for the betterment of the entire school system. “My biggest priority is to be a part of the team that it should be now,” she said.

The first thing that comes to Herbert’s mind, she said, is getting Carroll County’s school system into a new form of normalcy. That’s a combination of meeting needs of students and teachers while mastering a financial budget and overcoming the challenges presented by COVID-19. “If re-elected [to] the board,” she said, “I will continue to be a strong advocate for parents, students, educators, and taxpayers.”

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