Following a year when a former school superintendent was sentenced to prison and the school board often erupted in verbal battles, Baltimore County voters will — for the first time — go to the polls Tuesday to help select leaders for the nation’s 25th largest school system.
The county is moving from an appointed to a partially elected school board, and Tuesday’s primary is the first time potential board members’ names will be on the ballot.
Seven members will be elected, one from each council district, while five members will still be appointed by the governor.
Perhaps the most important issue confronting a new board will be who to hire as the next superintendent. In a vote of 8-4 in April, the current board made Interim Superintendent Verletta White its choice to be the next superintendent. But that decision was overturned by the state superintendent, and White now remains the interim for the second year in a row.
The board will have to decide whether to hire a search firm to do a national search. Some candidates believe White’s experience in the county makes her the best qualified; others support a change from those who worked close to former superintendent Dallas Dance, who was convicted of perjury charges related to failure to disclose gains from outside work.
Many parents and teachers also remain conflicted about the system’s expensive initiative to give every student a laptop, and wonder if the system’s move to an all digital curriculum is worth the money.
Baltimore County’s first school board race is highly competitive, with dozens of parents, teachers and retired business people vying for the seven seats on the volunteer board.
Voters will be asked to cast a ballot for one candidate in their district. The top two vote-getters will be on the November ballot.
Residents who live in the second, fifth and sixth councilmanic districts will not vote for a board member in the primary — only two candidates have filed in those districts, and both will advance to the November general election.
Voters in other districts have a large number of candidates to consider.
Five candidates are running in the first district, the southwest area of the county that includes Catonsville and Arbutus.
Pete Fitzpatrick, 45, became involved in advocating for better facilities in the southwest area about five years ago when his children were at overcrowded Catonsville area schools. A nurse at the Children’s National Medical Center in Washington, Fitzpatrick supports naming White superintendent. “We are not going to find someone with better experience at this point,” he said.
On the issue of technology, he said any innovative program could be expected “to have some growing pains.” He would look for cheaper alternatives.
Matt Gresick, 38, has two children attending Westchester Elementary School, and is a Howard County high school social studies teacher. He’s running because he believes teachers need to continue standing up for better schools. “For me, it is about empowering educators and making sure they feel they can build relationships with kids,” he said.
He would support a national search for the next superintendent. “I want the most qualified person for the position,” he said, but added he doesn’t believe ethics mistakes made by White — she failed to disclose outside work on required forms, and has acknowledged the error — are on the same level as former Dance, who is now in prison. He would rather spend money on lower class sizes than more computers in the early grades.
Lisa Mack, 60, said she believes White’s failures were unethical. Mack said she wants a fresh start with a new superintendent. The former CCBC teacher said she was upset to see what she described as academic holes she has seen in students when they arrived in the community college. “The way we are not educating children in Baltimore County.… We are crippling them for the rest of their lives.”
Richard Young, 62, is an Army veteran who retired from teaching, including a job at Woodlawn High School and as adjunct community college professor. He is concerned that county schools do not have enough discipline.
White should compete against other candidates in a national search, he said. He also believes the county’s new grading policy does not work and that graduation numbers are “a scam.”
Deborah Arnetta Cason did not respond to requests for information from The Baltimore Sun.
Eight candidates filed in the race for the third district, a large swath in the county’s north central area that includes Hereford.
Kathleen Causey, 53, is a current member of the school board. A businesswoman involved in residential real estate, her children include recent county graduates and a current student. Causey has been a minority voice on the school board, usually voting with three other members against some of the administration proposals, including the technology initiative. She tried to block White’s interim superintendent appointment this spring.
John Egan, 60, is a management development consultant, adjunct professor at the University of Maryland Baltimore County and parent of two county school graduates. He believes the system overpaid for laptops, adding that every student doesn’t need a device. He also believes White has an “ethics weakness.”
“I think the Baltimore County school system has been run very poorly and that the school board has not provided adequate oversight,” he said.
Paul Evitts, 48, is a speech pathology professor at Towson University with two children in the school system. He would support a national search for the next superintendent, and thinks there’s not enough research evidence to support the large expenditure on technology.
With nearly an entire turnover of the board expected this December, Evitts said he has not campaigned because he believes the public may be best served by competitor Kathleen Causey. “Being a pragmatist, maybe the people are better served by someone who has experience,” he said.
Paul Konka, 66, became a substitute teacher after he retired as a supervisory accountant in the office of Medicare and Medicaid. He has taught in northern Baltimore County schools, and believes too much class time is wasted while students are on electronic devices. Laptops often break down and some students play games on them, he said.
“The students of Baltimore County should have the best superintendent possible. Is that Verletta White?” he asked. “It well may be, but we won’t know until we conduct a national search.”
John Lang, 71, has experience in the business side of schools. Before retiring from the Maryland State Department of Education, he worked in the county managing school buses and as an acting director of transportation.
“I think the current board of education and the management of the Baltimore County Public Schools has lost the trust of the public,” he said. He does not understand why the board waited until April to vote to begin a national superintendent search, which was then stalled a week later when members voted to give the job to White.
“I think she has been tainted by the failure to report the outside income,” he said. He doesn’t believe the technology initiative has proved itself to be worth the cost, and he would take a “fresh look at this.”
Michael Voelker, 60, recently retired as an executive from Estee Lauder, and wants to put his skills to work on the school board. A product of the school system, Voelker had three children who graduated. “I have skills that are desperately needed on the school board and I want to make a difference,” he said.
Voelker wants to see a national search conducted for a new superintendent, and doesn’t understand why it has taken so long. “I think we need a change agent as a leader. I believe the likelihood of finding that from the outside is better than the inside,” he said. The laptop initiative, he said, should be investigated to see if a new approach is needed.
Joan Magnani did not respond to requests for information from The Baltimore Sun.
Michael Petrella has dropped out of the race.
In the fourth district, six people are running to fill the seat that represents western Baltimore County.
Gaston Horne, 28, wants to improve schools because some day he and his wife hope to have children who attend them. The son of two teachers, Horne thinks the technology initiative was rushed; he wants it slowed down. He would push more classes in financial literacy and vocational training. He believes the board needs to start fresh with a new superintendent.
“Even thought [White] admitted her mistake… it creates that shadow of doubt in a lot of Baltimore County parents’ eyes,” he said.
Tara Huffman, 44, is a program director at the Open Society Institute, focusing on criminal and juvenile justice. She said she is compelled to work for excellence in public schools, in part because she has 5-month-old twins who will be going to county schools.
“There have been some real accountability and transparency issues in the school system,” she said. She supports the decision made by Maryland State Superintendent Karen Salmon to block the appointment of White to the job of superintendent, forcing the board to appoint her as an interim for the second year. “Let there be a national search, so that we make sure that we are getting the most qualified candidate and the best ideas on how to move the county school system forward.”
“I support technology in the classrooms as long as we understand that it is a tool to support a broader curriculum and vision of how to educate students in a 21st century.”
Makeda Scott, 46, is the parent of twin boys who graduated from a county high school, and a daughter in a county middle school. As an active Woodholme Elementary School PTA president, she said she worked closely on issues including transportation.
Scott is a former substitute teacher and a Congressional staffer, and recently joined a company doing information technology and business support work. She supports White as the next superintendent. “I would like to see some continuity in our schools, so we can grow and focus on building up our school system,” she said.
While she supports ensuring technology is available for students, she believes the rollout of the initiative could have been better.
Autrese Thornton, 42, works for a company that provides services for disabled adults. In her 20 years as an educator, she was a special education teacher and an assistant principal in Baltimore County.
She believes White is the best candidate to be the next superintendent, despite the controversy over her ethics violation. “She corrected the error. It speaks to her integrity,” she said. White’s experience in the county is valuable, she said. While technology is important to enhance instruction, she would rather see some of the money go to reduce class sizes.
Regina Ann Smith and Kathleen White did not respond to requests for information.
Three candidates are running in the seventh district, which includes Dundalk, Essex and Sparrows Point.
Rod McMillion, 64, is a 35-year veteran teacher in Baltimore County. He is currently athletic director at Chesapeake High School. He would allow White to apply for the job, but thinks her ethical violations will preclude her from being picked.
He does not believe every student needs a laptop. “I think the money can be directed in another way,” he said, adding that a lot of students misuse the devices.
Eric Washington, 54, is one of three candidates running in the seventh district. The Community College of Baltimore administrator has one child who recently graduated from county schools, and another who is a junior at Eastern Technology High School.
He is “100 percent” behind the use of technology in schools, but questions whether young elementary school students need their own laptop. He would rather see schools concentrate on basic skills in those grades. The former PTA president would like to see a national search for a new superintendent.
William Feuer, 37, works for the Baltimore County Department of Aging, and is a guardian for two children attending the public schools. He’s running because he believes the east side does not get the same resources as other sections of the county. “I feel we are constantly neglected. We are not getting the proper tools and resources we need,” he said.
Before spending money on technology, he would repair facilities. He also would not be in favor of appointing White. “We need a clean slate and we need to move forward toward excellence and accountability.”