When the candidates got together Tuesday night, there was respectful debate, agreement on many issues and strict following of the predetermined rules. Obviously, we refer not to the embarrassing presidential debate, but rather to the Board of Education Candidates Forum hosted by the Community Media Center of Carroll County and the Times.
The candidates — Stephanie R. Brooks, Virginia R. Harrison, Marsha B. Herbert and Donna SIvigny — gave statements and fielded questions focusing mainly on the Carroll County Public Schools response to COVID-19 and the school system’s future. It was a congenial hour with two challengers trying to articulate subtle contrasts and mild criticism while also largely praising the work of the board and two incumbents emphasizing their experience and record while conceding things haven’t been perfect during a most challenging time.
The forum gave voters a chance to assess the field for the two board seats at stake. The decision likely comes down not to dissecting the differences of each candidate, but rather to whether voters have been satisfied or dissatisfied with the BOE’s performance and seek continuation or change. Election Day might well be a two-for-Tuesday, with both incumbents or both challengers winning.
Regarding how CCPS has navigated the pandemic, Herbert and Sivigny noted that the county was among the first to return to any form of learning in the spring, that teachers have worked diligently to improve online learning this fall and that Carroll was the first system to set a date for returning to school buildings in hybrid format. Neither Harrison nor Brooks seemed to find fault with any of that, although Harrison did note that she is “really concerned about the health of the children” and she cautioned the school board, “don’t rush into it.” Brooks promoted the idea of using a pilot school, where students could be appropriately distanced, to come back Monday through Friday before trying to bring all others back fully.
While he consensus is clearly that students do better in a classroom setting, we were heartened that all the candidates said some aspects of online learning will be a part of CCPS long after the pandemic is gone. Brooks went a bit further, saying “there are children that are going to do better in a virtual setting,” and that learning online could help those with ADHD or temporary mobility issues after surgery.
The incumbents and Brooks all said they supported starting high school sports as soon as possible, that it can be safe if proper precautions are taken, while Harrison said she was “a little leery. I worry so much about the health of the kids."
Some educators have been critical of the board for first wanting to require and eventually “strongly encouraging” them to teach from school building during virtual learning. The incumbents said they didn’t think that criticism was fair, expressing appreciation for the job the teachers have done. Brooks said, “Knowing that there’s almost 200 teachers who are looking to be on some sort of leave in the near future, I think that that actually speaks volumes to the disrespect that they’re feeling." Harrison followed with: “I believe that we need to show the teachers a lot more respect and to really listen to what they’re saying, because when you sit on a board, the view is a lot different than when you sit in the classroom.”
Brooks noted that she understands private schools are seeing “record numbers” of enrollment and Herbert conceded that the number of students who are no longer enrolled would translate to “$7 or $8 million" in funding. Both agreed resources will be needed to ensure that every student will be able to recoup the learning loss of the past, pandemic-filled six months. Sivigny said “local assessment” will be a key tool for understanding where students are academically as well as emotionally.
When the topic turned to building utilization, no one expressed support for closing schools or for comprehensive redistricting, although Sivigny and Brooks both said targeted redistricting, particularly in the Freedom area of Carroll, was needed. The incumbents talked about how proud they were that the Carroll County Career and Tech Center renovation project is underway and that the plan to replace 84-year-old East Middle School is moving forward. But Brooks said, “The big goal right now is to make sure we don’t let any other schools get to the point of East Middle School.”
When asked about their top priorities if elected, all touched on students' post-pandemic recovery, and then diverged somewhat. “To get our teachers at a scale competitive with other teachers is really crucial,” Harrison said. Said Herbert: “We need to follow our strategic plan. We made a new equity policy. We need to follow that." “Access,” Sivigny said, noting access issues were already present for free and reduced meals students, special education students and career and tech students and that COVID-19 has “exacerbated that.” Concluded Brooks: “First thing we’re going to have to look at is the budget. ... From there, I’d really like to see better support for our students and our teachers.”
Televised live by the Community Media Center, the forum can be viewed online.