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Howard school board District 1 candidates Christina Delmont-Small and Matthew Molyett discuss redistricting, SROs

Matthew Molyett, left, and incumbent Christina Delmont-Small are running against each other for the District 1 seat on the Howard County Board of Education.
Matthew Molyett, left, and incumbent Christina Delmont-Small are running against each other for the District 1 seat on the Howard County Board of Education.

The Nov. 3 general election is less than a month away and, due to the ongoing coronavirus pandemic, some voters in Howard County have already received their mail-in ballots.

This week, the Howard County Times/Columbia Flier is publishing the answers to a questionnaire sent to every Board of Education candidate in the five district races. Today’s answers are from the candidates in District 1 — incumbent Christina Delmont-Small and Matthew Molyett.

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The Nov. 3 election will be the first time that District 1 candidates will have a chance to vote for either candidate this cycle. Molyett, 33, and Delmont-Small, 56, were the only two candidates who ran in District 1 and a primary was not necessary.

The winner in District 1, along with the winners of the other four districts, will make up the first Board of Education in Howard County to be voted in by residents in a district instead of the entire county.

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The other races for the Howard County Board of Education are: Antonia Barkley Watts and Larry Pretlow II in District 2; Jolene Mosley and Tom Heffner in District 3; incumbent Jen Mallo and Sezin Palmer in District 4; and Yun Lu and Cindy Vaillancourt in District 5. Current Vice Chairperson Vicky Cutroneo and member Chao Wu will remain on the board through 2022, serving as the first two at-large members in the new system.

For more information on how to vote, click here.

See questionnaire answers from the other districts here: District 2 | District 3 | District 4 | District 5

Below are the answers from the District 1 candidates. They may be edited for clarity and style.

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Why are you running to be on the Howard County Board of Education?

Christina Delmont-Small: I’m running for reelection because I’ve been a proven public education advocate for 11 years and I believe so strongly in public education. I believe I have made a difference, but there’s more work to be done. I look at all aspects/processes of the school system and address where we fall short so improvements can be made for students and educators. I bring a much needed common-sense approach to the [board] and make decisions based on listening to the community and stakeholders, data and facts, not emotions. I’ll continue to ask the hard questions and will expect that the [board] and community receive complete and accurate information before decisions are made. I’ll continue to increase the level of parent, student and community involvement in school system decisions. I won’t compromise when it comes to the Board of Education’s fiduciary responsibility to provide an outstanding public education, to support and sustain a school system to meet the needs of a variety of learners and be fiscally responsible. As a member of the Board of Education of Howard County, my responsibility is to the students, parents, teachers, community and taxpayers of Howard County. I must make decisions that are in the best interest of our students and our school system. I will expect and reinforce a Board of Education culture of transparency, accountability and oversight over the Board of Education and the school system.

Matthew Molyett: I’m running because my children, their friends and our community deserve great representation on the Board of Education. I want to represent all of the students of Howard County, including groups that are consistently left behind like our LGBTQ+ community, racialized students, students with mental health challenges and students with special needs. District 1 needs a voice on the board that will fight to make our school system more transparent while still addressing the issues we care deeply about. We need a voice that will respect and support educators, not one that will vilify them and disregard the amazing work they do each and every single day. We need an expert in technology on the board who understands the importance of students having access to computers and Wi-Fi during digital learning. We need to rise to the challenges we face and take them head on, not avoid them for political convenience. We need board members able to work with the Democratic elected officials that control our school funding, the same officials that have endorsed my candidacy. As a board member, I won’t just say “no” to the community I serve when they ask for my support on issues. I’ll work with everybody in Howard County to get things done for our students, even with people who may disagree with me. I can’t wait to get to work for our amazing school system, and I ask for your vote on Nov. 3.

The board voted over the summer to have school in Howard County be 100% virtual through January. Did you agree with that decision? Should the school system start a hybrid model sooner than February?

Delmont-Small: I voted no because parents were not part of the decision and they should have a voice in their child’s education and the proposal to adopt a 100% virtual option and a [semester-based] model for middle and high school students. HCPSS did not provide safety metrics or data/rationale for their recommendations. Not having an opportunity for parents and the community to provide input on the vast array of the struggles they faced with virtual learning, and for the board to consider their concerns and ideas before a decision is made, is not a step toward a successful education experience for our students. As we learned in the spring, there are many students who are not available for learning in a 100% virtual environment. We must focus on getting students safely back in school for actual face-to-face instruction as soon as we can as well as providing a virtual option to families that need one. I was encouraged that a survey by the teacher’s union indicated that 776 teachers were willing to provide small group in-person instruction and the [board]/HCPSS should be working toward safely doing this. I’ve been advocating that HCPSS presents a plan to safely provide this type of instruction. We should look at how other jurisdictions are implementing in-person instruction and use this to assist in the development of our plans. I’m encouraged that day cares have been operating safely in our schools for months.

Molyett: I wholeheartedly support the board’s decision to start the school year with virtual learning, which was only opposed by one member of the board: my opponent. As a parent in the system, I understand and empathize with those upset about virtual learning. It has been a hard transition for my students and for me as a parent. However, the health and safety of our students and educators is too important to risk in-person learning at this point in the COVID-19 pandemic. Our class sizes have grown far too large and our air quality is too degraded. We have to wait until scientific and medical experts tell us in-person classes can return, otherwise we risk continuing the spread of COVID-19 to teachers and the parents of students at home. I support the board allowing for small, limited classes for students that require individualized education plans, so long as CDC guidelines for social distancing are met and personal protective equipment is provided for free for all staff and students involved. In the meantime, we should work to continue supporting our staff and students to make virtual learning the best experience it can be. As an expert in cybersecurity, I can navigate the technical solutions required to protect our online classes from practices like “Zoom-bombing” and ensure that students have access to the technology and Wi-Fi that they need. I look forward to getting students and staff back into our schools as soon as it would be safe and equitable to do so.

The redistricting process in 2019 was a controversial issue in the community. Early construction on a 13th high school is underway, and it’s likely that the winners of this election will decide on how to populate that school. What did you think of the school system’s redistricting process last year? Do you support using redistricting as a way to further the school system’s mission of equity?

Delmont-Small: HCPSS schools have been redistricted many times in the past using [Free and Reduced Meals] data as a factor with much less controversy than we experienced in 2019. I did not vote for the redistricting because the FARMs data the [board] used to make its decision was inaccurate. Using inaccurate data to make any decision is unacceptable. In addition, redistricting of 2019 did not achieve the desired result of equity and instead created animosity and division in our community. Redistricting should be based on capacity and proximity, and avoid concentrating poverty in schools when possible. However, poverty concentration is due to affordability, density, and location of housing, which is the responsibility of the county government, and will continue unless development/zoning decisions are changed. Unless we have a location, county funding and time to build a school, we will never be able to properly address overcrowding. The [board] can’t do this alone — the [board], community and county leaders must work together. A good first step would be to align the Howard County General Plan and growth/zoning designations with HCPSS school regions because we are essentially speaking two different languages and this has not served our students or community well. Also, the General Plan should include locations for schools in areas where they are needed to address capacity issues and not rely on redistricting to shift capacity. The [board]/HCPSS need be part of the development of the General Plan to advocate for the interests of our students and school system.

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Molyett: The best time to solve the capacity issues that made the 2019 redistricting occur was to do so back in 2017 when the board was working on that exact issue. My opponent obstructed and delayed during that cycle, which is what pushed the process to the critical point it was at for 2019. The redistricting process last year left many in the community unhappy, both with the results of the process, as well as the process itself. School redistricting affects the community in a massive way, so I believe changes of such import need to be advertised to the public well in advance of implementation, as well as provide for adequate time to gauge and incorporate public feedback into the plan. Any redistricting plan needs to be made in a transparent and open fashion that builds trust with the communities being redistricted. I do support equitable redistricting to address both overcrowding and the existing socioeconomic and racial segregation in Howard County schools. I feel students get the best educational and social experience possible from schools when they are surrounded by a diverse group of peers from all walks of life. I worry about inequitable distributions of funding and resources, and the resulting opportunity gap, if schools continue to remain segregated along racial and socioeconomic lines.

The school system is currently reexamining its school resource officer program. A vote to remove SROs from Howard County schools failed in September, and the next vote is set for January. Do you support removing SROs from Howard County schools?

Delmont-Small: SROs provide safety for our students, teachers, administrators and staff in school buildings and are a vital part of community policing. Our Howard County state’s attorney, Rich Gibson, stated he is in favor of SROs. The alternative to SROs would mean police without the additional training of SROs would have to provide the law enforcement coverage, according to the law. Building positive relationships between our students and law enforcement is important for our whole community. We must focus on strengthening relationships and learning about and from each other to reduce negative and dangerous interactions between citizens and the police. If there are problems with particular SROs, that needs to be addressed. I empathize with the concerns we have heard from students who view SROs as inhibiting their education, and I support the superintendent’s efforts to address and improve the SRO program with community leaders, students and families. I voted to study non-SRO and non-law enforcement alternatives for schools, which I believe will be a good supplement to SROs to keep our schools safe. Discussions with our community will enable us to work together to improve the safety of our schools. We should always strive to identify and rectify problems rather than throwing out a program without public discussion.

Molyett: I support providing students with competent, credentialed counselors and advisers. I support the school district finding solutions to ensure continued compliance with the Maryland Safe to Learn Act. The current agreement between HCPSS and the [Howard County Police Department] does not document the claimed goals of the SRO program and does not provide students the protections that the wider conversation claim are in place. A dedicated officer whose “primary responsibility is to keep order on campus” and “whose primary duty is enforcement of the law” is antithetical to an institution designed for educating through childhood. Data regarding arrests in HCPSS demonstrate that the police behaviors in schools with smaller white population proportions are harsher and more punitive than in schools with larger white population proportions. I would prefer that the county divert the current SRO funding toward HCPSS to hire more credentialed social workers, counselors and advisers. Our schools shouldn’t rely on full-time police officers with part-time counselor training. Especially when that counselor role is only considered a secondary duty to enforcing the law.

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What is one issue/topic you are passionate about that you will try to bring to light as a school board member?

Delmont-Small: I have two areas of equal importance that I’ll continue to advocate for: to include the voices of students, parents, educators, staff, the community, stakeholder groups and taxpayers in [board]/HCPSS decisions, and that HCPSS institutes responsible budgeting and spending of tax dollars that takes into account current and future needs, and linking funding decisions to evaluated, data-driven student outcomes. The budget process is broken — it results in sending a budget to the county executive that does not prioritize student outcomes and ignores economic realities. The result is a failure to serve our community well. Just because many accept that we must ask for more than is economically feasible because the county executive can only cut, not add, to the budget, is an unrealistic process. When we send the budget to the county executive, we create a false impression that the budget will be fully funded and false hope that reductions will not need to be made. It’s unrealistic and irresponsible that we do not factor the impact current budget decisions will have on future budget decisions. The superintendent’s proposed budget to the [board] should include detailed information from school system experts of what to prioritize when budget reductions need to be made. By waiting until the budget is not fully funded by the county executive doesn’t allow for adequate time in the process to make millions of dollars in reductions. Rushed decisions are often not rooted in thoroughly analyzed data and therefore put good student outcomes at risk.

Molyett: HCPSS is plagued by insufficient long-term planning. We need better processes in place to assure that issues are not allowed to fester without resolution and that actions taken are sufficient for reasonable expected terms. My daughter started kindergarten at Ducketts Lane when the building first opened. In just the three short years she attended that building was forced to discontinue the pre-kindergarten service that it was designed for because of a lack of capacity. Our school buildings should be successfully meeting their community needs for 20, not for a mere two. The failed 2017 redistricting effort and the botched 2019 redistricting effort were both manifestations of years of failing to prepare for the expected capacity growth. Especially when the board and HCPSS cannot control issues they must be planned for.

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