All six candidates for Montgomery County Board of Education agree that there are issues with school safety, but board members running for re-election and their challengers have different theories about how work can get done.
At a candidates forum at the Long Branch Community Center on Wednesday night, candidates answered questions regarding suspension, anti-truancy programs, vocational education, counselors, and student resource officers, the officers employed by Montgomery County Police that work in schools.
Candidates will face off in another forum Wednesday at 7 p.m. at the Rockville Memorial Library.
In the election Nov. 6, incumbent Philip Kauffman of Olney is defending his at-large seat against Morris Panner of Chevy Chase; Fred Evans and Rebecca Smondrowski are facing off for the District 2 seat vacated by Laura Berthiaume; incumbent Christopher Barclay of Takoma Park will defend his District 4 seat against Annita Seckinger of Silver Spring.
Board members, who serve staggered four-year terms, are responsible for overseeing almost 149,000 students and a more than $2 billion budget.
The answers between incumbents and their challengers differed the most when a student from Piney Branch Elementary School asked a question regarding if the school could start a pilot program in their school to eliminate polystyrene foam trays used in the cafeteria and add a dishwasher.
Students at the school have been advocating for the issue for five years, and even though they say they have raised money to experiment, the school board has not made any recommendations to the superintendent to start the pilot.
Smondrowski, Evans, Seckinger and David Esquith, who represented Panner, said the program sounded like a good idea and they would look into it if elected; Esquith promised Panner’s support.
“Why should they not have a one-year chance to prove that this is a good thing?” Seckinger said.
But Kauffman and Barclay said it is not the board’s role to make operational decisions for individual schools.
“This is really a decision for the superintendent,” Kauffman said.
Smondrowski said she disagrees with that; she believes that the board has a responsibility to advocate to the superintendent for its community.
“I don’t feel it is my position to say, ‘You have to do this,’” she said. “But it is my responsibility to say, ‘Why aren’t we doing this? We should be doing this.’”
The incumbents also brought up the school system’s budget, processes and the school board’s role in policy-making much more than challengers, who spent more time sharing their ideas.
“It is striking to me about how much [the incumbents] toe the line — how much they defend past decisions and past approaches,” said Danica Holley of Silver Spring.
When asked about school resource officers, Kauffman and Barclay both explained that the issue is coming to an agreement with the County Council about who should pay for these positions.
Because of budget restraints, the officer positions have been cut from county schools in the last three years. Previously, each high school had a designated officer; now, officers split their time in several schools.
“The issue is who pays for it,” Kauffman said. “That is the bottom line. ... I support the program and I hope it can be expanded, but it would have to be expanded by the [county] Council and not the school system.
Barclay said, as a board member, he has to focus on how work gets done.
“Folks run looking from the outside, and they want to represent their hopes and desires; We have the practical experience,” Barclay said.