Redistricting, mental health and school-shooting protection measures were among the issues discussed by Howard County school board candidates at an election forum Thursday night.
The candidates agreed with each other on all of the topics.
“When I was teaching, I kept my windows and doors open and unfortunately we can’t do that now,” said Bob Glascock, 66, who has worked in education for 38 years. The school system’s focus should be on what’s happening in the schools, for example bullying, the Ellicott City resident said.
The eight candidates in the nonpartisan race are vying for four open seats on the Board of Education. None of the incumbents whose terms are expiring are seeking re-election.
The 77 Howard County school opened its doors to nearly 58,000 students for the first day of school, Sept. 4. For the 2018-2019 school year, there is a new elementary school, new academic programs, including Jumpstart, and a focus on addressing mental health for both staff and students.
The candidates are Vicky Cutroneo, Bob Glascock, Danny Mackey, Jen Mallo, Robert Miller, Anita Pandey, Sabina Taj and Chao Wu.
About 20 people attended the League of Women Voters of Howard County hosted the an election forum at Howard Community College.
The school board has seven members with an additional seat for a student member.
When addressing redistricting, most candidates agreed that comprehensive approach, including planning ahead, is a viable solution for the county.
“Band-Aid fixes aren’t going to work, we are going to have to redistrict,” said Vicky Cutroneo, 50, of Woodbine. Cutroneo is a former president of the PTA Council of Howard County.
The school board met Thursday to review eight proposed options to relieve crowding at the five most populated county high schools, Centennial, Hammond, Howard, Long Reach and Mt. Hebron. The options, included opening a ninth grade academy, temporarily or permanently assigning rising ninth graders to under-populated schools to redrawing school attendance boundary lines.
The school system needs to build more schools and plan ahead, said Sabina Taj 46, of Ellicott City.
“We have high school 13 picked, we need to draw those [boundary lines], we need to pick the high school 14 site and draw those lines, so that we are not moving kids multiple times,” Taj said.
In March, the school board voted to select Mission Road in Jessup as the location for the new high school. The school is scheduled to open in September 2023.
Taj, who is longtime adviser for a foundation that supports initiatives in kindergarten-to-12th grade education, said students should be moved to a different school during “naturally occurring transition periods,” when students are in ninth grade or in middle school.
Candidates were asked to “describe the ideal relationship” between the school board and the school system’s central office, including Superintendent Michael Martirano.
“The Board of Education has one employee and one employee only, the superintendent,” said Danny Mackey, 24, of Ellicott City.
The school board needs to guide the superintendent in how decisions should be carried out, Mackey, a civil engineer, said.
Anita Pandey, 48, said there needs to be more dialogue between the school board and central office. The Ellicott City resident, who has been teaching for 28 years, including as a professor at Morgan State University, suggested the school board should have conversational sessions with central office, something the school board does with the public.
A former school board had a strained relationship with former Superintendent Renee Foose. In the 2016 school board election, three new members were selected, ousting incumbents who sought re-election. Outgoing members Anne DeLacy, Ellen Flynn Giles and Janet Siddiqui, often sided with Foose on sometimes controversial policy decisions.
Jen Mallo, 49, touched upon mental health when discussing additional measures the school system needs to take in preventing school shootings.
“It [shootings] always comes down to mental health...they [the shooter] weren’t getting adequate mental health supports,” the Columbia resident said.
The school system needs to ensure that all guidance counselors, nurses and students need to know who they can turn to if they see or know of a problem, Mallo said, who has served as the chairwoman and vice chairwoman of the school system’s Community Advisory Council, the liaison organization between the school board and community.
Robert Miller, a former school system band director for 34 years, echoed Mallo’s thoughts that mental health measures and having “easy access” to report concerns is important.
“We need to get data on what really does work, what really makes our schools safe,” Miller, of Columbia said. “We need to work with the police … [but] we don’t want prison like schools.”
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For candidate Chao Wu, 40, who is an engineer, looking at the safety features in school buildings is important with maintaining a focus on mental health.
“We want to make sure we provide enough physical safety,” the Clarksville resident said.
For the new school year, the school system improved safety measures at all 12 high schools, including exterior door lock systems to accelerate the high school’s entry systems and hired additional social workers. Martirano plans to bring onboard an additional 12 social workers over the next four years.
Other topics discussed were addressing student achievement gaps and special education programs, teachers personal spending on classroom materials, student sport injuries, adjusting school start times and the accountability of the school system’s discipline policy.