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Local leaders seek diversity on school board

Cindy Huang

Applicants to the school board in past months answered questions about how they could serve the interests of an increasingly diverse student body.

Minority students make up more than 40 percent of the school system; the nine-member school board has one minority representative.

Maria Sasso, who is Hispanic and white, replaced Solon Webb, who is black, last month. Webb had also been the board's only minority representative.

When Gov. Larry Hogan declined to reappoint Webb last month, the board was without black representation for the first time in about four decades.

Now, with the School Board Nominating Commission considering nine candidates for a term that starts July 1, some local leaders and community members are stressing the need for diversity on the board.

The commission will make recommendations to Hogan, who will make the appointment.

The applicant pool includes two African-American candidates: Eric Grannon, a former candidate for county state's attorney, and Mariko Bennett, who works for a health care company in Washington D.C.

Kerry Petz, who works for a local education nonprofit organization, said she's Irish and Puerto Rican.

Allison Pickard, the board member now representing legislative District 33, is seeking reappointment. But she told the commission a "political headwind" may be against her.

Pickard said local political leaders signaled Hogan will likely pick a minority candidate.

House Speaker Michael E. Busch, D-Annapolis, said African-American students, who make up approximately 20 percent of the student body, need someone to address issues in their community.

Busch said the lack of an African-American school board member is "unacceptable" and the decision to not reappoint Webb was an "error."

Del. Sid Saab, R-Crownsville, said he hopes to see a qualified African-American candidate appointed to the board.

Jamie Falcon, the nominating commission chairman, said commissioners know the community wants diverse representation. But he added, "We're interested in diversity of all kinds."

When asked if diversity will be a priority in the District 33 appointment, a spokesman for Hogan said in an email that "the governor will seek out the most qualified and best possible candidate."

Schools spokesman Bob Mosier said the system values diversity among its students, employees, community partners and school board, but does not advocate for candidates during the appointment process.

"We view diversity as a great strength at all levels," Mosier said.

Pickard, a stay-at-home mom, said she has the passion and time to commit to the school board. But she said she also understands the community desire for more minority representation.

"I'm in a Catch-22," Pickard said.

Nine hopefuls

Many of the nine candidates for the seat are active parent volunteers. Some are Democrats, others Republicans.

The list includes a lawyer, a former teacher, a retired businessman, a college administrator and a county engineer.

Commissioners typically recommend the incumbent candidate to the governor, but they are not required to do so.

Pickard replaced Amalie Brandenburg about a year ago, when Brandenburg left the board to work for County Executive Steve Schuh.

Falcon said Pickard is "very well liked."

Pickard said she has made tough decisions by considering different perspectives.

"I have a very analytical mind. I'm inquisitive," she said.

During a budget discussion, she pushed to cut an $8.1 million plan to push back school start times in order to ensure funding for other parts of the budget.

When another board member proposed using $1.4 million in a reserve fund for the effort to shift start times, she raised concerns about allocating money without plans to use it.

One of those who wants Pickard's seat, Grannon, is a lawyer who has won recognition for his work at a Washington, D.C., firm.

Law360, a legal news service, named him one of 10 lawyers under 40 to watch in the field of competition law.

Incumbent Anne Arundel County State's Attorney Frank R. Weathersbee, a Democrat, narrowly defeated Grannon, a Republican, in the 2010 election, according to news reports.

In his application, Grannon wrote that his "proudest accomplishment is that my older son is one of the top readers in his kindergarten class at Davidsonville Elementary."

Grannon said he grew up poor in Brooklyn, New York, and that access to good public schools gave him the opportunity to have a successful career.

He said that if appointed, he wants to reduce the backlog of school construction projects, close the opportunity gap and improve early childhood literacy.

Bennett, another African-American applicant, said she moved from Prince George's County to Anne Arundel for this jurisdiction's public schools.

She said she has chaperoned school trips and volunteered in school, and wants to ensure all African-American students feel included.

Her goals include training school staff to recognize and celebrate diversity and identify students who need additional support. She also wants ensure adequate funding for all schools, particularly in struggling areas.

Bennett also said she wants to increase teacher retention rates through training and mentoring for young instructors.

Bennett and Grannon will be interviewed on March 28, along with Dawn Myers, an administrator at the University of Maryland, and Claudia O'Keeffe, a county engineer.

Myers said in her application that schools lack resources for construction projects and children who need additional services.

She said she also wants to incorporate more technology into classroom learning.

O'Keeffe said her goals include improving student performance to close the achievement gap, expanding and improving magnet programs and preparing for a Crofton high school,

She also wants to update reading programs, use more technology in school and prepare students for careers and life beyond school.

These candidates will be considered alongside with those who interviewed last Monday: Pickard; Petz; William Fromme, who retired from a consulting and technology company; Jill Whitley, an attorney; and Diana Peckham, a retired teacher.

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