Howard BOE candidates talk school disparities in forum

Christine O'Connor, a newly elected Board of Education member, speaks a candidates' forum in Columbia in September.

Howard County Board of Education candidates discussed what they perceive as inequalities between county schools, the need to adjust school start times and the controversial Confederate flag display by Glenelg High School students during a candidates' forum Wednesday at The Other Barn in Columbia.

Sandie French even added a little comedy.

French, an incumbent seeking her fifth term on the board, paused briefly while about to answer an audience member's question before saying 'I agree with Mr. Dyer' with a smile. Near the end of a more than two-hour forum, French's response elicited a hearty laugh from the nearly 80 community members who turned out for the event sponsored by Columbia's ten village boards.

French's comment came on the heels of Dyer stating that he is in favor of transparency within the Board of Education and school system whether the information made public could be negative or positive. Dyer, making his third run for the board, served on the board from 2008 through 2012, but his colleagues — French included — voted to impeach him in 2011.

French and Dyer, two well-known names within the Howard County education circle, are joined by Bess Altwerger, Dr. Zaneb Beams, Dan Furman, Christine O'Connor, Mike Smith and Cindy Vaillancourt in the race for four seats on the Howard County Board of Education. The election is Nov. 4.

The forum offered candidates the opportunity to open for five minutes on a topic of their choice before an audience question-and-answer session.

While candidates had the choice of five topics to address at the beginning of the forum, most candidates chose to speak on what they perceive as inequalities throughout the county school system.

Furman, who works as counsel to the Howard County State Delegation, called the parity among student experiences the "centerpiece of his campaign."

He believes that some schools with a lower socioeconomic status lack opportunities for students that other schools offer.

"I'm looking at trying to provide all students with an equity of opportunity," he said. "That's really my top priority, ensuring resources are delivered to individual schools based on need."

Dyer advocated that the board needs to work closely with the Howard County Council to develop land use planning priorities that prevent "tall skyscrapers of poverty." He added that the last thing the county needs are "pools of poverty" causing segregation between schools.

He also said that the county should consider larger class sizes in more affluent parts of the county and smaller class sizes in schools where more resources are needed.

Smith, a labor attorney, said the disparity within the school system represents a "new type of segregation" and that school leaders need to do better for the students outside the top 20 percent of graduates.

He believes the Common Core State Standards could go a long toward to helping in that regard.

"If we're smart in implementing [the Common Core], we can ensure all children receive a quality education," he said.

French, however, said being equitable does not mean that every school gets the same thing.

Using school staffing as an example, French said each school starts with a staffing amount based on enrollment and then using data on school needs more staffing is assigned to schools around the county.

"[Equitable] means that the staff has data and they've provided us with the data that indicates how many students have certain needs in a school and how are we going to staff," she said.

Most candidates come out strongly in favor of the school system taking a more serious look at adjusting school start times, particularly Vaillancourt who has long advocated for later start times.

"It is well established that this is a bad idea on so many levels," she said. "We need to stop studying whether to change it and start studying how to change it and do it."

O'Connor, however, said that while sleeping late would be nice, moving start times will affect many other school activities.

"There would be a lot of issues we would need to work out before we do that," she said, adding that later start times could mean elementary school students traveling home in the dark.

Every candidate condemned the display of a Confederate flag by a Glenelg student at a football game between Glenelg and River Hill at River Hill School on Sept. 5, and two Glenelg students coming to school the following week with the flag around their shoulders. School officials addressd the incidents but did not provide details about possible discipline.

"There is no doubt that the symbol of the Confederacy is a symbol that is offensive, racist and cannot be tolerated in our school system," Altwerger said. "That's the bottom line."

Beams said her children were "terrified" when they heard the story.

"I have worked for the ACLU and believe in free speech, but being offended by this is not being opposed to free specch," she said. "None of us in the community are saying that they boys shouldn't speak freely. We're saying that we as a community are going to speak up and say this is unacceptable."