Pravin Ponnuri is an information technology project manager for the federal government, parent of two children education in Howard County public schools and a magician for children's birthday parties. Now, he wants to use all of this experience to "fix" the Howard County school system.
"We moved to this county, a lot of people moved to this county, for the school system. That is one thing which we're all proud about," said Ponnuri, 49, who immigrated to Howard County from India almost 20 years ago. "And for the last few years, I've seen it go persistently down. It's getting rotten from the inside out."
In recent months there has been increasing parent criticism of school system leadership, especially its handling of mold growth in Glenwood Middle School and several other county schools. At a town hall hosted by two county delegates last week, several parents called for a change in that leadership.
Superintendent Renee Foose's four-year contract is up for renewal in the spring. The four-year terms of school board members Janet Siddiqui, Ann De Lacy and vice chairwoman Ellen Flynn Giles will expire next year, leaving three openings to be filled by voters during the 2016 election cycle.
Ponnuri, who will announce his candidacy on Wednesday night at the Linden Hall in the Dorsey Search village center, said that the problem with the current school system leadership is that it lacks transparency, accountability and empathy. Several parents at the town hall made similar accusations.
"The moment you start losing this, it becomes a one-person shop," he said, citing a school board voting bloc in which five members of the board "go along with the superintendent's public stance."
When voting, the school board frequently splits 5 to 2 with members Cindy Vaillancourt and Bess Altwerger dissenting.
"I see that as a problem," he said. "I'm a math guy. Had I seen a few 4-3's, 3-4's, 6-1's, I would think, yeah, people are thinking independently. But this shows people are not thinking independently. That's not a good sign. These people are becoming a rubber stamp for the superintendent rather than a countercheck and balance to the superintendent."
Ponnuri, along with several other parents, have accused five of the board's members — Chairwoman Christine O'Connor, Giles and members De Lacy, Siddiqui and Sandie French — of voting in support of the superintendent's actions without considering community input.
"We need an attitudinal change: we are here to serve the community and the community is not here to please us," said Ponnuri, whose son graduated from Wilde Lake High School, where he daughter is currently a student. "And refocus on your stakeholders: your students, your teachers, your parents."
Ponnuri said that he would fight to bring accountability and transparency back to the board by thinking independently and by encouraging the sharing of public information with the community. He said that his experience as a project manager for the government would help him "manage and put things in a check a little bit for the Howard County public schools.
"Being with the federal government, I manage a lot of big projects now," he said. "For the federal government, $20 million projects or $50 million projects are nothing. That's the kind of experience I'm trying to leverage onto the Howard County Board of Education. Because the school system, after all, is a government organization with a big budget."
For the past 20 years, on top of his full-time job, Ponnuri has performed magic tricks and created balloon animals at kids birthday parties in the area – he said that he has performed at more than 1,000 — and from 2012 to early 2015, he owned a magic shop in Savage Mill.
He learned how to do magic as a child because, he said, "I like to make people smile."
But he is suspending his magic shows to have time to run his campaign.
"Hopefully I can make a bigger impact on the community this way," he said.
If elected, Ponnuri would add diversity to the board; none of its current members are foreign-born or male.
"Twenty percent of Howard County residents are foreign-born," Ponnuri said. "That is a big number that is not being represented. If you look at the people in PTAs and all ... there is one section of people out there. And other people don't come out as much just because they don't feel connected to that."
The Ellicott City resident said that he hoped his election to the school board would encourage more parental involvement from groups who are currently underrepresented.
"I'm hoping a byproduct of my getting there is trying to get more parental involvement because now they can see, oh yeah, I can relate with this guy," he said. "He came here, he's gone through the same trouble like us."