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 5 — Yun Lu and Cindy Vaillancourt.
District 5 was one of the more competitive races in the June primary. Lu, 47, won with 36.9% of the vote, while Vaillancourt, 57, came in second with 23.5%. Vaillancourt, who served on the board from 2010 to 2018, edged out Gene Ryan by 66 votes — or four-tenths of a percent — for second place in the primary.
Below are the answers from the District 5 candidates. They may be edited for clarity and style.
Why are you running to be on the Howard County Board of Education?
Yun Lu: I am running because I want to bring evidence-based decisions and common sense to the [board]. The decisions of the [board] have direct impact on tens of thousands of children and their families, as well as all Howard County communities. Everybody is impacted. I never imagined that I would run for any office until I saw the decision-making process at the [board] during redistricting — inaccurate data, flawed analysis and misinterpreted results. The [board] should make decisions based on solid data and evidence, make sure benefits outweigh risks and consult all stakeholders. I want to bring common sense and improved decision making to all of the important decisions that will occur throughout the years of my term. Public education should put our children first. I came from a family of educators, and I have two children in Howard County public schools. Seeking election to the [board] is about preparing children for their bright future — improving their academic achievement, physical well-being, as well as social-emotional readiness.
Cindy Vaillancourt: I served on the Board of Education from 2010 through 2018. During that time, there were a lot of challenges with transparency, responsiveness and fiscal responsibility. I worked very hard with a large cohort of community groups and individuals to replace the unresponsive board members in the 2016 election, and the superintendent and administration in 2017. I felt we had put the HCPSS on a good path forward and therefore chose not to run for reelection in 2018. I have been terribly disheartened to watch the [board]/HCPSS so quickly return to old bad habits of unresponsiveness, lack of transparency and failures to communicate effectively with the community about major decisions and issues. The [board] elected in 2020 is going to have a number of extremely important issues to address, including getting the students safely back to school, developing budgets in this uncertain economic environment, redistricting to open [the 13th high school] as well as the Hammond High School addition and new Talbott Springs Elementary School. It is critical that the new [board] has some members with the depth and breadth of knowledge and experience I will bring to the board. As a former board member, citizen and grandparent of a future HCPSS student, I am very invested in public education and our school system.
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?
Lu: I disagree with the 100% virtual [learning] through January decision. We should provide small group in-person teaching to students in need, and we need to evaluate the situation more frequently. The Maryland COVID-19 positivity rate is low, and the Howard County COVID-19 positivity rate is even lower than the state average. Since the HCPSS school facilities are approved to be used for child care in the fall, we should be able to bring small groups of students and teachers back to school if we follow appropriate safety protocols. Based on stakeholder input from staff and parents during the summer, many staff and parents are not at all concerned when returning to school buildings in the fall. We can pair up the parents and teachers who prefer in-person teaching and bring those students and teachers back to schools to provide in-person teaching. The COVID-19 pandemic is a rapidly evolving process, and it makes more sense to evaluate the situation more frequently, for example every quarter instead of every semester. The HCPSS can closely monitor COVID-19 circulation and in-person teaching experiences of other public school systems as well as private schools and parochial schools. The updated information can better inform the [board’s] decision making. Yes, the school system should start a hybrid model sooner than February. I would suggest that the HCPSS starts small group in-person teaching as soon as possible for students in need.
Vaillancourt: Yes, I believe it was a reasonable decision to make under the circumstances and with the information they had at the time. I think focusing on making sure HCPSS could offer a full and rich online program in the fall was important, especially since there was every reason to believe that the schools would at some point be closed again, even if they had opened in September. I believe the HCPSS should also be taking action to return some small groups to in-person instruction, with priority being given to those students who receive specialized services and can adhere to reasonable safety protocols. I believe small groups should be returned to in-person instruction ... as long as the students can adhere to reasonable safety precautions and we have adequate staff who can be returned safely to the in-person environment. That ought to be able to begin before February, unless circumstances with the crisis change.
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?
Lu: I think the school system’s redistricting process last year was flawed. The [board] should make decisions based on solid data and evidence, make sure benefits outweigh risks and consult all stakeholders. I support equity, but I don’t support unnecessarily moving students. Capacity should be the top priority for redistricting. When a new school opens up, we need to fill the school capacity. When a school is overcrowded, we need to reduce the overcrowding. Redistricting should meet the goals of solving capacity issues. The appropriate level of utilization needs to be school specific because different schools have their unique situations. For example, Glenelg High School is an older school with narrower hallway, a smaller cafeteria and shared septic system, so the school utilization level should not be as high as some newer or larger schools. A stable and contiguous community is also an important factor to consider when redistricting. A safe and nurturing environment is essential for a student’s studying and well-being, and it takes time to build relationships. We need to minimize the scope of redistricting and avoid unnecessary cascading or domino type of redistricting. We also need to consider enrollment projection change in the next few years in order to prevent moving students back and forth. We also need to give socioeconomically disadvantaged students special considerations and more resources. When redistricting, we can follow the principles of keeping high-poverty schools at low utilization to ensure the students at those schools receive more resources per student.
Vaillancourt: I believe the 2019 redistricting process was unnecessarily divisive and ultimately ineffective. I believe in neighborhood schools where students are able to develop and maintain close connections to their school, their teachers and their peers. I believe in reasonable and geographically logical attendance areas. I believe citizens have a right to expect that their government will not create unnecessary instability in their, or their children’s, lives. School attendance areas need to be adjusted when new schools are built or additions opened, or when growth patterns cause some schools to become overcrowded. When redrawing those attendance areas, I support evaluating all the criteria in [the school attendance areas policy] and [making] every effort not to exacerbate inequities or cause artificial concentrations of any demographic within specific schools. I do not, however, support the notion of constantly adjusting attendance areas in order to achieve arbitrarily determined demographic balances. I experienced that in Wake County, North Carolina, and can attest to the gross inequities that result, as well as the extraordinary costs incurred.
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?
Lu: No, based on the current data that I am aware of, I do not support removing SROs from Howard County schools. I am willing to reevaluate when there is new and important data available. The Safe to Learn Act of 2018 mandates either the assignment of an SRO or adequate law enforcement coverage for Maryland schools. We need to think about the reasons why the SRO program started and why SRO or adequate law enforcement coverage was mandated and whether that rationale still holds. The safety of our students, teachers and staff is of utmost importance. It is reckless for the [board] to vote on removing SROs without an alternative plan to protect our children. At the same time, we also need to give considerations of why SROs were suggested to be removed. Some students are afraid of law enforcement officers. We need to talk with those students and hear about the reasons of their fears. Our goal is to help the students. We need to find the root cause of the fear. Fostering a positive and nurturing relationship between SROs and students is more effective than simply removing SROs. I am also concerned about the [board] decision-making process. This September motion regarding removing SRO was not on the agenda [and] lacked sufficient information, public discussion among the board members and public input.
Vaillancourt: I have supported the SRO program as intended and, while on the Board of Education, made many efforts to review and modify it as issues were identified. It is clear that there continue to be issues that must be addressed. We must seriously and respectfully consider the negative impact on the social and emotional well-being of our students that they have reported in heartbreaking detail. I have been impressed by a more comprehensive, and sensitive, program offered in Cambridge, Massachusetts, called the Cambridge Safety Net. I do not support summarily removing the SRO program without an alternative ready to implement. I have the greatest respect for the SROs I have observed in many of our schools. The program needs significant adjustments. I would hope those adjustments could be started before the students return en masse to school.
What is one issue/topic you are passionate about that you will try to bring to light as a school board member?
Lu: One topic I am passionate about is to bring common sense and improved decision making to the [board]. The [board] should make decisions based on solid data and evidence, make sure benefits outweigh risks and take into account input from stakeholders. As a statistician, I think the [board] should follow science and data to make sound decisions for the future of Howard County children. The process should be fair and transparent.
Vaillancourt: I continue to be passionate about the need to adjust start times to a more healthy and effective timetable. We invest so much in our public schools, that to undermine our own efforts by arranging the system around chronic sleep deprivation for teenagers is not only detrimental to many students, but irresponsible from a resource allocation perspective. I hope we will have additional data points from our current class schedules to demonstrate the benefits to later start times.