Howard County Times
Howard County

Howard school board District 4 candidates Jen Mallo, Sezin Palmer, Julie Hotopp discuss virtual learning, redistricting

Sezin Palmer, left, and incumbent Jen Mallo are running against each other for the District 4 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 will be 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 4 — incumbent Jen Mallo, Sezin Palmer and write-in candidate Julie Hotopp.


District 4 was one of the more competitive races in the June primary. Mallo, 51, won with 33% of the vote, while Palmer, 45, came in second with 27.5%. Hotopp, 45, did not appear on the primary ballot and is a write-in candidate for the general election.

The winner in District 4, 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.


The other races for the Howard County Board of Education are: incumbent Christina Delmont-Small and Matthew Molyett in District 1; Antonia Barkley Watts and Larry Pretlow II in District 2; Jolene Mosley and Tom Heffner in District 3; 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 1 | District 3 | District 5

Below are the answers from the District 4 candidates. They may be edited for clarity and style.

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

Jen Mallo: I am running to be reelected to the Howard County Board of Education because I am the only candidate in our district with the experience, background, values and principles that are needed on the board. I actively champion equity and anti-racism, prioritize the needs of the most vulnerable students and do the time-consuming hard work that is necessary to be a successful board member. I have 25 years of experience in education with 20 years of continuous advocacy and work within [the Howard County Public School System]. My work ranges from preschool to higher education, from classroom volunteer to large-scale project management in literacy, from school-based PTA president to systemwide Community Advisory Council chair. My commitment to our community spans decades. I have demonstrated the ability to work with local community groups and other local elected leaders to make sure our schools are funded and our students are learning. My experiences as a parent with students who went to Swansfield, Harpers Choice and Wilde Lake have given me experience and perspectives about the needs of a wide variety of students. During this pandemic, we need leaders who can do the job on day one. I am that candidate.

Sezin Palmer: I am running for the Board of Education because I see a need for leadership that is focused on making sound decisions that are in the best interest of Howard County students and the quality of their education. The current [board] has demonstrated an inability to make decisions that best serve Howard County students, families and educators. From misguided attempts to achieve equity by shuffling over 5,000 children to different schools, to poor handling of the budget that has resulted in class size increases and an unwillingness to do the hard work to devise a plan to get children back in school, Howard County children and families are suffering because we don’t have the right experience on our [board]. It’s time for a change. We need experienced, successful leaders. We need to put the interests of children first and say no to politicians and special interest groups that are negatively impacting HCPSS. I will focus on transparency and accountability for the superintendent, HCPSS and the [board]. I will not accept sham meetings and decisions regarding topics that have not had sufficient time for review, community feedback and analysis. Now, more than ever, HCPSS needs to focus on reinventing itself and determining a way forward that will allow students and educators to prosper in a time when budgets will be even more constrained than in the past. I have experience successfully leading organizations focused on everything from national security to health care, and I will bring that experience and leadership to the [board].

Julie Hotopp

Julie Hotopp: Education is incredibly important to me. Education provided me with opportunities my parents did not have. I am a professor and scientist, educating the next generation of scientists while performing biomedical research. I want to ensure that HCPSS provides the best education to all students, one that prepares them for their careers whether that be through vocational training or college preparedness. I have significant concerns about the lack of transparency and accountability of the Board of Education. I have also been vocal about issues related to policy, education, and finance, expressing specific concerns on numerous issues including redistricting, school start times, middle school science fair and the board’s inappropriate use of sole source contracts. In December, I was considering declaring for the primary, but instead I supported a candidate who had to leave the race for personal reasons related to COVID. Upon his departure, I was disappointed at the slate of candidates remaining, particularly with respect to the polarization of the community. After hearing that same concern echoed by many in my district and community, I declared my write-in candidacy this past spring. So remember, if you like what I have to say, you need to write in: Julie Hotopp.

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?

Mallo: I voted in favor of a virtual model along with six of my colleagues because it was the right thing to do for the health and safety of our students and staff. The school system was unprepared with the protections and protocols necessary to have face-to-face instruction. Efforts needed to be focused on developing a robust virtual model, as well as for providing stability and consistency for our families and teachers. Our teachers worked hand in hand with the administration to learn how to deliver effective instruction, to use new tools [and] to help make sure all our students had access to technology. By focusing on science and safety concerns of the pandemic, we worked in the best interests of our students and staff. We know that virtual schooling is challenging for many of our students and families — which is why the administration is working to bring in small groups for in-person instruction as well as developing a hybrid model for presentation to the board on Oct. 22. I will do my homework, do the research, follow the public health guidance and make decisions that are based on science. It would be easier to capitulate to loud, angry voices, but as leaders, we must put the needs of our students and staff ahead of the politics that disregards the science and puts our community’s health at risk.


Palmer: First and foremost, as a professional working in the health technology sector, I am absolutely committed to ensuring the safety of students, educators and staff during this unprecedented pandemic. The current level of uncertainty in the scientific community regarding the vulnerability of different populations to this disease, as well as the lack of sufficient data to conclude the role children play as potential spreaders of this deadly virus, makes it absolutely essential that we do not unnecessarily put lives at risk. That said, the mission of the HCPSS — above all else — is to educate our children, so we must devise responsible and effective means to do so. I did not agree with the decision to have 100% virtual school through January. A decision for virtual schooling through the first quarter for the majority of students — with small group instruction for some students — while additional planning could occur would have been reasonable; however, to make a decision for two full quarters in the middle of summer simply demonstrated an unwillingness to do the hard work to devise a plan that would support getting children back into schools. There are many children who simply cannot be successful with virtual-only learning and require in-person education. These children include not only those with special needs, but also children who may not have home environments conducive to virtual learning. These are our most vulnerable students, and many studies have already shown the disproportionate impact COVID-19 is having on children’s educational and emotional well-being.

Hotopp: All families should have the option of a 100% virtual education until the COVID crisis is over. I am concerned that we have yet to adopt the state-mandated schedule of 3.5 hours per day of synchronous learning five days a week. With respect to hybrid, we must support teachers working remotely when we can. Schools are indoor spaces with an increased risk of transmission, and we cannot afford for our teachers to be ill. However, there were teachers willing to return to school with appropriate safeguards and [personal protective equipment]. I am disappointed these teachers were not used to support students needing in-person school starting on the first day of the 2020-21 school year. I am particularly concerned about students with disabilities. We have many students who cannot access the online curriculum due to disabilities and who required in-person learning in a safe environment from day one. In fact, there was no better day, since infection rates are only expected to rise through the fall, winter and spring. Based on the availability of personnel, other struggling learners should have been invited to return on day one as well. Now, all teachers are supporting online school, and it is difficult to shift them to in person teaching without disrupting the lives of all students. Additionally, we are now unrealistically focusing on opening in February when infection levels are predicted to be their highest.

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?

Mallo: Absent action by the board, the next school year would have over 21,000 students in schools above 110% capacity — and over 10,000 students in schools above 120% capacity. It affected elementary, middle and high schools throughout the county. The board voted 7-0 to begin the redistricting process in 2019. The redistricting plan that I helped to pass was important because it helped to decrease overcrowding and relieve the concentration of poverty. These two factors are critical in student achievement as well as faculty and staff morale. State financing for capital construction needed to build capacity at [the 13th high school), Hammond and Talbott Springs would not have been available if we had not taken concrete steps to address the imbalances in over-crowded and underutilized schools. I was not willing to continue to imperil the health and safety of students and staff at overcrowded schools. I supported the compromise plan because it was a significant improvement over the status quo and stayed true with the values of the school system and our community.

Palmer: I believe the 2019-20 redistricting approach was completely flawed. While redistricting will be necessary from time to time, it should not be viewed as an opportunity for complete upheaval of a significant fraction of the county to minimally impact a set of unclear goals, which is precisely what happened. I support increasing diversity across our schools and infusing additional resources into the schools that need them most; however, redistricting is not the best means by which to achieve either. I support redistricting when it is the only mechanism to address school overcrowding. Even in these cases, I would prefer to explore renovation options to increase capacity versus moving children out of their schools. Still, I do believe redistricting is a necessary component of balancing school populations as the geographic populations change. The 2019-20 plan lacked clearly stated goals and was based on flawed data. For example, overcrowding was cited as a goal, but the plan that was approved addressed overcrowding for a minimal number of schools, left numerous schools dangerously overcrowded and created new schools that are likely to be overcrowded as a result of the redistricting plan. It also negatively impacts the most vulnerable populations of students, moving children who received free and reduced meals out of Title I schools and into non-Title I schools, where they will not have access to many of the resources they need including transportation for before- or after-school activities in the case of the many walkers that are now bus-riders.

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Hotopp: The redistricting process was significantly flawed. In the end, the largest changes were with elementary schools and were introduced only near the end in a rushed and confusing manner with little time for community feedback. There was no notification in Spanish, as required by law. The work session schedule was so compressed one board member publicly admitted to fatigue-induced mistakes in voting. Plans were released on social media and were unclear even to the experts and board members in the room. There were the two Open Meetings Act violations. Ultimately, the primary goal was to balance capacity. Yet earlier this year, it was reported to the board that before COVID-related withdrawals there was a Title I school that was predicted to be at [greater than] 140% capacity within three years. That school is directly adjacent to another Title I school that has about twice the number of seats and is at [less than] 90% capacity. These were issues raised during the redistricting work sessions and testimony but were ignored. With respect to equity-based redistricting, I prefer resources be spent on education and school buildings in an equity-informed manner. My own children attend diverse schools with a high proportion of students participating in the Free and Reduced Meals programs. Those students have the same opportunities as their peers at other schools, and sometimes better opportunities. They have fabulous, amazing, diverse and supportive teachers committed to ensuring the best education of all students.

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?

Mallo: As a mother of three children who graduated from Howard County schools, for a long time I had not questioned the role of SROs in our schools. As I have learned more — about how a Black student is six times more likely to be arrested than a white student — I realized that I could not just sit back and watch the continuation of the current program which disproportionately arrests and disciplines our Black and brown students. I could not let national trends be repeated in our local schools. The criminalization of youthful behavior and disproportionate school discipline is counter to ensuring that all our students received a good education. I want our schools to be safe places to learn, and I believe we can develop a different model to achieve that while not disproportionately disadvantaging Black and brown students. We can do better. The school system, the Howard County police and the county government can and will work together to find a solution for our community that does not dismiss racial concerns or school safety.


Palmer: I am open-minded on this issue. I support keeping SROs in Howard County schools until such time as an alternative plan that will provide safety for students in our school buildings is presented, analyzed and determined to be a more appropriate solution. This is not a decision that should be made based on anecdotal evidence of individual experiences, but rather the SRO program deserves a complete study of its benefits and risks. The decision to allow a vote on the SRO program was premature and an example of poor leadership. Public and staff input was not considered and alternatives were not presented or discussed. Furthermore, the Safe to Learn Act of 2018 stipulates that SROs or adequate local law enforcement coverage and mental health services will be provided for every school system. Before HCPSS can remove SROs, an alternative plan must be presented and approved. The vote to remove SROs that was taken in September was irresponsible given the lack of study and alternatives presented.

Hotopp: Given what is known about the school-to-prison pipeline and disproportionate discipline in schools, I have concerns about SROs. However, the 2018 Safe to Learn Act requires that an SRO or adequate law enforcement be available to provide coverage at schools and participate on behavioral threat assessment teams. Given the additional training that SROs receive, without changes in Maryland law, I prefer SROs over ‘adequate law enforcement.’ I prefer trained police officers over security guards. However, I would suggest that the primary role of SROs be changed to that of mentor, role model, educational resource, problem-solver and community liaison while providing law enforcement actions only in an emergency. In nonemergency situations, I would propose that SROs serve in an advisory role, working toward a zero-arrest school system and never serving as an arresting officer. We should move toward equitable use of SROs across the school system; all middle schools should have SROs or none of them should. SROs should be diverse with respect to race, ethnicity and other demographics. Furthermore, the SRO program should provide a report to the Board of Education each year analyzing if discipline is disproportionately affecting specific demographic groups and detailing how the program will work to reduce the disproportionate application of discipline, particularly with respect to Black and brown students, male students and special education students.

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

Mallo: I am passionate about addressing how the underlying concerns of economic disadvantage affect the ability of our students to learn. My years of providing weekend meals to students through Blessings in a Backpack have grounded me in knowing that not all of our students have the same starting point. As a school system, we must recognize that many our students have challenges that can be addressed through a variety of school supports, school counselors, social workers, differentiated instruction, special education, family support liaisons (Black Student Achievement Program, Hispanic Achievement Liaisons, etc.), reading support teachers, math support teachers, mentors, tutors and more. Our school system is known internationally for its high performance, its robust Gifted and Talented Programs and its copious Advanced Placement offerings. I am passionate about making sure there are not barriers for students to access these programs. I am also passionate about career technology education. Our students need to have engaging pathways to careers that they are ready to start upon graduation if that is the direction they choose. I embrace our commitment to offer this line of study to our students whether they want to become an health professional like an EMT or [certified nursing assistant], a graphic artist, a HVAC specialist, an engineer through Project Lead the Way or cybersecurity networking specialist.

Palmer: The one issue that I am most passionate about is the steady decline in performance of the HCPSS. As a lifelong resident and graduate of HCPSS as well as the mother of two boys currently in HCPSS, I am extremely concerned about the abysmal performance outcomes — such as only 56% proficiency in English language arts for all fourth-graders and similar performance in math — that have become the norm in HCPSS. We have a school system in decline that requires new and innovative thinking to address consistent budgetary shortfalls, increasing class sizes and a new norm of cutting critical educational programs. When a system is in trouble, continuing to cut spending to the programs most critical of supporting the mission is a recipe for disaster. What is needed is an examination of where every dollar is being spent and a realignment of those dollars to only the programs that are absolutely essential to educating Howard County children. Then and only then can new administrative positions and other costs that do not directly support students’ educational achievement be considered. I believe we need to stop using the prior year’s budget as the starting point for decision-making, as that supposes the prior year’s budget was appropriate. I would advocate for a zero-based budget review to establish the programs that are required to support educational outcomes for all students, identify metrics associated with those programs, and allocate resources accordingly.

Hotopp: I am passionate about science education and would like to see improvements to science, technology, engineering and math literacy. From COVID-19 to global warming, from restoration of the Chesapeake Bay to flooding in Old Ellicott City, from cooking and baking to the [plastic] bag tax, STEM concepts are important in our daily life. To understand issues and support the best remedies, we need everyone to be comfortable and fluent in science. The foundation for improving science literacy is ensuring that every child has a sound educational foundation in STEM. Past generations of children and adults have found science to be intimidating and unapproachable. Yet, science is one of the most hands-on and practical courses a child will take. It provides unique opportunities for enrichment and success, including for students who struggle in reading and writing intensive courses. It also provides an opportunity to hone critical thinking skills and to engage in debate, learning how to provide support for one’s arguments. It provides the opportunity to teach the appropriate use of statistics and how to identify the inappropriate use of statistics in disinformation, both of which are increasingly important. In addition, the STEM field is growing, providing opportunities for both employment and income stability. It is a field where there is still economic upward mobility. We need to ensure that all students are able to take advantage of these opportunities, which will ensure a bright future for them and for our community.

For the record

This story has been updated with questionnaire answers from District 4 write-in candidate Julie Hotopp.