The Howard County Education Association, the union that represents more than 5,000 educators in the county's public schools, has endorsed Democrat Calvin Ball in the 2018 race for county executive.
Ball, a member of the County Council, is running against Democrat Harry Dunbar in the June 26 primary and is the presumptive front runner to challenge incumbent Republican Allan Kittleman in November.
"I am especially honored that our educators have endorsed me as the next Howard County Executive," Ball said in a statement. "I will work tirelessly to serve all of our children, families and educators."
HCEA President Colleen Morris said that the endorsement of Ball was not a "popularity contest," but came down to priorities and who the union believed would put education first. Kittleman failed to win the union's support when he ran for county executive in 2014.
Rebecca Otte, a 15-year veteran teacher at Fulton Elementary School, said she voted to endorse Ball because of the commitment she believes he'll make to raising education funding.
"Both of them have been really supportive to the teachers and to the school system," Otte said. "But for us it really came down to who would fund us the way we need them to."
Last year, Kittleman cut the school system's $626 million operational budget request by $54 million. In fiscal 2017, when the school system requested $612.6 million, he funded $562.2 million.
Morris said she wants to see funding brought back up past its 2011 funding level, when the school system's spending budget, which does not include its employee benefits or debt service, made up 56.4 percent of the county's total operating budget. Since then the funding level has fallen, and last year made up 52.1 percent of the budget; she wants to see it raised to at least 57 percent.
During his interview with union members, Morris said Ball was supportive of restoring the funding level over the course of his term, if elected.
Kittleman is scheduled to release his proposed fiscal 2019 operating budget for the county, including the school system, today. The school system requested $645.1 million in operational funding, its largest ever request.
Kittleman campaign manager Sean Murphy said in a statement that the campaign respects the union's decision, and that the county executive's "record speaks for itself."
"Allan has strong support within the HCPSS and HCEA community. He has earned this support by increasing education funding beyond the maintenance of effort and ensuring that teacher salary increases are funded," Murphy said in the statement. "Allan has tremendous respect for our educators and will continue to work to make sure our students have a safe and strong learning environment."
Dunbar said he was "disappointed" by the union's decision and felt it was making a "tremendous mistake" in choosing Ball.
Another factor in the union's backing of Ball, Morris said, was his attendance at a November restorative justice training hosted by HCEA and the school system; Morris said Kittleman was also invited, but did not attend.
Restorative justice practices focus on community building as an alternative to punitive discipline practices.
"When it comes down to a close call, Calvin has shown his support by showing up to events like this," Morris said.
HCEA employs a multi-step process to endorse local candidates, beginning with an issue questionnaire and interview with union members, who make a recommendation to the organization's 11-member Government Relations Committee. The committee then makes a recommendation to the union's 13-member Board of Directors that makes its own recommendation to the 120-member Representative Assembly, which takes a final vote on whether to endorse. HCEA interviewed 52 candidates over 11 nights, according to a release from the union.
At the union's April 16 endorsement vote, Morris said at least 60 members were present, and that the vote to endorse Ball was near unanimous.
The power of endorsements like HCEA's has waned somewhat in recent years, as unions are seen as increasingly liberal institutions and are therefore less likely to influence Republican voters, according to Todd Eberly, associate professor of political science and public policy at St. Mary's College of Maryland.
However, in primary races with multiple Democratic candidates, such as the County Council, the endorsements still hold more clout. And for races where voters are less likely to be informed about the candidates, such as in a board of education race, Eberly said endorsements can serve as a " Cliff Notes for voters."
"Endorsements typically matter these days if they come with money or boots on the ground to knock on doors and things like that," Eberly said.
HCEA will decide in the coming weeks if it will commit money or time canvassing to any of its endorsed candidates, according to union Uniserv Director Amy Maloney.
HCEA also announced its endorsements of three County Council candidates: Democrat Opel Jones for District 2, Democrat Christiana Rigby for District 3 and Democrat Deb Jung for District 4. The union has not announced endorsements for District 1 or District 5.
Maloney said the three candidates stood out to the organization because of their passion for education.
Jones, who faces one opponent, Republican John Liao, impressed HCEA with his knowledge of the school system, Maloney said, describing him as a "dynamic leader."
Rigby faces three Democratic opponents in District 3, Hiruy Hadgu, Steve Hunt and Greg Jenning.
"She's a lifelong Howard County resident and while there were many good candidates in District 3 that we were impressed with, she really stood out as somebody who had already invested a lot of time and effort in the school community and we wanted to continue to work with her," Maloney said.
Jung, who is running against Democrats Ian Bradley Moller Knudsen and Janet Siddiqui as well as Republican Lisa Kim, stood out because of her experience and her ability "to hit the ground running" if elected, Maloney said.
Board of Education
The union endorsed two candidates for Board of Education, Vicky Cutroneo and Bob Glascock; the organization announced its endorsement of Robert Miller in January. Ten other candidates vie for four open seats on the seven-member board: Timothy Hodgson Hamilton, Christopher Michael Hilfiger, Danney Mackey, Jen Mallo, Anita Pandey, Carleen Pena, Saif Rehman, Mavourene Robinson, Sabina Taj and Chao Wu.
Cutroneo is the current president of the PTA Council of Howard County and Glascock worked for more than 35 years in the county's school system. Maloney said both stood out from the crowd of candidates because of their experience in Howard County education.
"Vicky's been very involved in the last few years as an advocate for the community and we really saw her strength as a leader and think she has a lot of experience working with the school system and respect from the community," Maloney said. "[Bob's] an educator and we think he's got a great deal of knowledge and experience and will be a great asset."