Two candidates vie to be the first elected school board member in Baltimore County's southwestern area

For the first time this year, Baltimore County residents will directly elect some of the members of the county’s board of education. Constituents in each of the seven councilmanic districts in Baltimore County elect one member to the school board, and Maryland’s governor will appoint five members.

In Baltimore County’s 1st District, which runs from Baltimore Highlands to Woodlawn and includes Lansdowne, Halethorpe, Arbutus and Catonsville, the two nonpartisan candidates running for a seat on the school board are Lisa Mack, 60, and Matt Gresick, 38, both of Catonsville.

What follows is an introduction to who the candidates are, where they stand on select issues that are especially relevant to southwest Baltimore County and what they say their priorities will be:

Why they’re running

Gresick lives with his wife in Catonsville, and they have two children who attend Baltimore County Public Schools. Gresick has a third child who lives in Pennsylvania with the child’s mother.

Gresick, who teaches American government, world history and world religions at Reservoir High School in Howard County, is in his 17th year as a Maryland teacher. He said his experience working as a teacher is why he wanted to run. A teacher’s voice is “desperately needed” in any group that makes education policy, he said.

“As a teacher, I feel a lot of times we’re told what to do by people who haven’t actually been in the classroom,” Gresick said.

Mack and her husband live in Catonsville, where they moved about three years ago after living in Arbutus for 33 years. Mack is retired from a career with Verizon, where she was director of wholesale markets.

From 2009 to 2013, she taught English courses at the Community College of Baltimore County as an adjunct. She said some of her experiences in CCBC classrooms helped push her to run for the school board.

“I thought that all kids [in Baltimore County Public Schools] got the same level of education that my kids got. I realized that that is not a true statement,” Mack said. “I spent full semesters teaching high school graduates how to write a paragraph.”

Nicholas Stewart, vice chairman of the board of education and the representative for the 1st District, said he was strongly supporting Gresick in the race because of the latter’s education background and understanding of the board’s responsibility to be “proactive and forward-looking.”

Stewart, who was appointed in July 2015, did not seek election this year.

New Lansdowne High School

Both candidates said they believe Lansdowne High School should be replaced with a new building, and both said it should happen “as soon as possible.”

Currently, constructing a new Lansdowne High School is listed as the 30th priority on a list of capital budget requests by the school board. In early May, the current board voted against awarding a contract for renovations at Lansdowne High School, hoping instead to push for new construction, though no funding has been allocated.

Mack said she would approach the school system’s budget like her “personal finances,” looking for items to trim to pay for her priorities.. As an example, she said Baltimore County should scale back its one-to-one device policy for students.

Gresick said if elected to the school board, he would push for the replacement of Lansdowne to be the county’s top capital project priority, “tied for first” with installing air conditioning in the schools in the county that do not have it.

Lansdowne High School’s building conditions were rated lowest in a countywide facilities assessment of high schools in 2014. The building was described as having water damage, structural settlement, poor ADA compliance and other issues.

Key priorities

Mack said her main priorities if elected would be to focus on the climate of Baltimore County classrooms. She said she would try to ensure that classrooms are safe and that kids in elementary schools get a solid academic foundation so they can succeed in later years.

Making classrooms feel like places where students can be comfortable learning starts with setting expectations and providing assistance to students who need it, she said.

“We need a process that provides holistic assistance for kids who chronically act out,” Mack said. “And we need some consequences.”

That way, she said, students get the assistance they need, but also understand the expectations set for them, like not being disruptive.

For higher grade levels, like high school and middle school, Mack said her strategy would involve making sure students can perform basic skills like reading, writing and mathematics, and not just perform on a test. For lower grade levels, Mack said she would support personalized interventions for students not performing at grade level.

“That would be my focus, to make education meaningful again,” Mack said.

Gresick said one of his top priorities would be getting a new Lansdowne High.

“I’ve been at those meetings for over a year now. I know that community and those kids, and they need a new facility,” Gresick said.

He also said making schools into comfortable environments where students feel encouraged to learn would be one of his priorities, as would providing a “buffet of options” to students.

Gresick said he would emphasize smaller class sizes, the availability of trade programs and making sure students are career- and college-ready when they graduate high school.

And, Gresick said, he would prioritize ensuring that teachers and school staff knew they could be honest and open with him, an area in which his classroom experience gives him an edge, he said.

“I know it would be great when I’m talking to teachers that they’re honest and they’re blunt. I think there’s that comfortability factor,” Gresick said.

Reducing overcrowding

Baltimore County is in the middle of a process with consulting firm Sage Policy Group to develop strategies to reduce overcrowding in its high schools, which are predicted to have a shortage of 1,700 seats in the next decade.

Officials from BCPS and Sage have toured parts of the county to present potential scenarios that would reduce high school overcrowding and to obtain community feedback. Over the summer, Sage presented seven potential scenarios to reduce crowding; that list has been narrowed to three.

The scenarios are just proposals, and ultimately the decision on how to proceed — whether it includes constructing new schools, changing magnet programs, redrawing school districts or a combination of all those strategies — will be up to the school board.

A final report from Sage Policy Group to the school board is due Dec. 18, said Brandon Oland, a school system spokesman. The report will have recommendations and compiled community feedback.

While the scenarios could be refined and edited before going to the school board for a vote, Gresick and Mack both said they are most in favor of “Scenario B,” a plan that prioritizes the FY 2019 capital plan as it currently exists and increases the number of magnet program seats.

“Scenario B” is estimated to be the most expensive of the three proposals and has the least number of schools affected by boundary changes, according to BCPS. Sage estimates the scenario would cost $628 million in capital construction and renovation.

The proposal includes constructing new schools to replace Lansdowne High and for Western School of Technology in Catonsville , and redistricting students among Catonsville High, Lansdowne High and Western School of Technology.

More information on the High School Capacity Study is available online here.

Early voting in Maryland begins Thursday, Oct. 25, with polls open from 10 a.m. to 8 p.m. Early voting ends after Nov. 1, and polls are open on Saturday and Sunday.

Marylanders can register to vote at early-voting sites, but not on Election Day.

Election Day is Tuesday, Nov. 6.

cboteler@baltsun.com

twitter.com/codyboteler

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