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Robinson, Runyeon, Voskuhl, Simon, Kaff, Hitchings for Harford School Board [The Aegis endorsements]

Given that incumbents are running in five of the six contested school board seats, the time has come for new people to fill some of those seats, otherwise no change can be expected with regard to fiscal responsibility.
Given that incumbents are running in five of the six contested school board seats, the time has come for new people to fill some of those seats, otherwise no change can be expected with regard to fiscal responsibility. (AEGIS FILE PHOTO / Baltimore Sun Media Group)

This year, for the first time in Harford County, voters will have the opportunity to pick six of the nine members of the Harford County Board of Education, which is a major shift in the governance of the school system.

Running the school system is as important a function of state and local government as there is. A well educated citizenry was seen even in the earliest days of the Republic as the key to making a democratically elected government operate properly. Providing a solid public education to all citizens, therefore, is key to the American way of life. Educated and measured citizens, so goes the logic, can be expected to make foreword-thinking choices as opposed to self-interested decisions based on short-term personal gain.

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To date in this country, the citizenry has generally, though not always, proven itself quite capable of resisting what early critics of the American experiment saw as democracy's inherent flaw. As 18th century Scottish lawyer and professor Alexander Fraser Tytler put it, "A democracy cannot exist as a permanent form of government. It can only exist until the people discover they can vote themselves largesse out of the public treasury. From that moment on, the majority always votes for the candidate promising the most benefits from the public treasury ..."

Professor Tytler's axiom has been proven wrong, and public education can be credited with this happy result.

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Public education in Harford County is at a critical juncture and in dire need of more firm leadership than has been in place for the past several years, if the local citizenry is to be educated in a way that continues to perpetuate the American Republic.

The Harford County Board of Education and its chief executive, the superintendent, are responsible for managing an annual operating budget just in excess of $455 million. By way of comparison, the county's government general fund budget is just in excess of $480 million. The school system doesn't have the power to levy taxes, so it relies on allocations that come primarily from the state and county governments. Very roughly speaking, about half of the school budgets is state money, half is county money and a small fraction comes from other sources, the federal government among them.

While the school system doesn't have taxing authority, it does have substantial latitude in how it spends the money it receives.

In recent years, as inflation has been relatively flat and public school enrollment has declined in Harford County, the school system's budget requests have increased substantially. Allocations have increased, though not at the rate requested. School officials often refer to the smaller than requested increases as budget cuts.

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Also, teachers and other school staff have not been receiving raises in recent years, though most public and private sector employees face similar situations.

The challenge facing the board after it is seated will, given the financial realities at play, continue to be providing the excellent level of education that has come to be expected while also paying more keen attention to the school system's budget both before it is presented as a request to the county, and after the allocation numbers are returned. In other words, choices need to be made about what will be funded and at what levels so the school system can thrive even as it lives within the constraints of fiscal reality.

Given that incumbents are running for five of the six contested school board seats, this means the time has come for new people to fill some of those seats, otherwise no change can be expected with regard to fiscal responsibility.

A few mitigating circumstances preclude a full on "throw the bums out" anti-incumbent sentiment. First and foremost is that school board members do not draw salaries, unlike the other state and county officials who will be elected this November. It's a post that entails a lot of personal sacrifice for no financial reward, so it's hard to question the intentions of any of the people running. All express strong views about ensuring high quality public education is a high priority in Harford County.

An argument can also be made for keeping some incumbents so as to preserve institutional memory, but, then again, institutional inertia is a big part of what plagues HCPS in 2014.

District A

In the Edgewood-Joppatowne District A, there is no incumbent and two highly qualified candidates are running, Fred Mullis, a very active member of the local Republican Party and owner of a medical technology firm; and Jansen Robinson, a prominent Democrat and community activist, who is a civilian anti-terrorism officer and security specialist with the U.S. Department of Defense.

Both have established themselves as pragmatic and results oriented in their limited public roles to date and either can be expected to be detail oriented if elected to the school board. Robinson, however, has been more active in more public arenas dealing with elected officials, which gives him an edge. The Aegis recommends voters in District A cast ballots for Robinson.

District B

In the Fallston-Kingsville-Joppa District B, incumbent Robert Frisch, a retired Baltimore County police officer, who has also been a public school teacher and is active in community organizations, is challenged by Laura Runyeon, a long-time parent activist who was a founder of the organization that advocated for the building of a replacement Youth's Benefit Elementary School in Fallston.

Both have solid qualifications with regard to their dealings with the school system. While Frisch has been part of a school board lacking in fiscal watchdog qualities, Runyeon told the Baltimore Sun she believes the school system needs to both be more aggressive in pursuing money from the county and other sources, but she also would advocate for cuts in non-instructional and administrative areas. This gives Runyeon an edge. The Aegis recommends voters in District B support Runyeon.

District C

In the greater Bel Air District C, incumbent Alysson Krchnavy, a branch office administrator for Edward Jones Investments in Havre de Grace, a parent activist in the Bel Air community prior to joining the board, and the longest serving board member at present, is challenged by Joseph Voskuhl, a retired career Harford County educator whose last post was as principal at Bel Air High School and who remains active as an advocate for foster families and a youth athletics coach.

Krchnavy, while never shy about speaking up or dissenting, could hardly be called an iconoclast when it comes to challenging proposals put forth by school system administrators. Indeed, she says part of the reason she is running is to continue her support of the administration. That's not necessarily a bad thing, but the administration could do with a little more constructive criticism.

Voskuhl, meanwhile, says he is running because, "We can't continue with the status quo." He says the school system is facing a fiscal crisis and he would like to serve one term and focus on beginning a budget process that requires justifying every expenditure.

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The Aegis recommends voters in District C support Voskuhl.

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District D

In northern Harford District D, incumbent Nancy Reynolds, a retired career Harford County educator served as principal of Bel Air Middle School, is challenged by Mike Simon, a business owner with accounting experience.

Reynolds told the Baltimore Sun she believes the funding issue will require more effectively working with state and county funding sources and makes no reference to any need for internal checks on spending. Simon told The Sun he thinks the are better ways to save money than the school system's cutting of school bus services and talked of logical allocation of resources. He also raised a battle cry that has become commonplace in certain political circles in calling the state-mandated Common Core curriculum "garbage," and saying it needs to be repealed. Locally, it's a non-issue as the county has no control over state mandates. The Aegis recommends voters in District D support Simon.

District E

In the Aberdeen-Churchville-Fountain Green District E, incumbent Arthur Kaff, a civilian lawyer with the Department of the Army, is challenged by Rachel Gauthier, a counselor for the Baltimore County Public School System, who comes from a family of educators. Kaff hasn't been particularly vigilant with regard to school system enrollment and spending trends, but Gauthier, when asked about fiscal matters by The Baltimore Sun, talked of securing more money from the county, making no mention of fiscal restraint within the school system, giving the edge to Kaff. The Aegis recommends voters in District E support Kaff.

District F

In Abingdon – Havre de Grace District F, incumbent Thomas Fitzpatrick, a sales manager for a national stormwater management company called Modular Wetlands Inc., is challenged by Michael Hitchings, a construction project manager for the federal government at Aberdeen Proving Ground.

Both have characterized the board as presently constituted as working hard to live within its allocated budgets, and both advocate for more vigorous pursuit of state and county money. Hitchings' experience in dealing with multimillion dollar federal construction projects, however, gives him an edge. He may well be able to spot budgetary oversights missed by others. The Aegis recommends voters in District F support Michael Hitchings.

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