At a forum Oct. 17, newcomers vying for a seat on the Montgomery County Board of Education varied in their support of the widely criticized decision the current board made this year to give eligible school system employees two step increases in their pay.
Only one of the new contenders to the race, Fred Evans of Rockville, defended the school board’s decision.
“I think they made the appropriate decision at the time they made it,” Evans said. “However, I will take a good hard look at the schools’ $2.2 [billion], $2.3 billion budget and do an analysis of it over time.”
Evans, as well as Rebecca Smondrowski, his challenger for the open Dist. 2 seat, emphasized the importance of collective bargaining, which is the process the school system uses to negotiate with unions.
The negotiations this fiscal year lead to a decision by the current board to approve two step increases for eligible employees.
School employees had not received a pay increase for three years, and even with the decision the school system was able to request only the minimum amount of funds from the county — both of which were points that incumbent Christopher Barclay made at the forum when defending the decision.
The choice was criticized by the Montgomery County Council, which offered a $2,000 bonus for its employees rather than step increases this fiscal year.
Candidate Morris Panner, who is running against incumbent Phil Kauffman for an at-large board seat, said although he supports higher pay for teachers, he believes that current budget decisions are “lockstepping” the school system into a deficit.
“We are in a very difficult long term structural deficit, so we have to take a long look to see that everything we do is sustainable,” Panner said.
He said the school board also has to compare comparable compensation across the region, and look at school system priorities.
Smondrowski, along with candidate Annita Seckinger, who is running against Barclay for the Dist. 4 seat, said teachers — and support staff at schools — were the most important people in the school system, and they support decisions that allow the school system to retain the best possible staff.
Candidates answered specific questions about transparency, special education litigation, school system land use, the achievement gap and more, from audience members at the forum, which was held in the Rockville Memorial Library.
Diane Conway of Potomac said that many of the candidates’ answers were vague.
“There was a lot of PC vagueness,” she said.
Of all the candidates, Evans impressed her most, she said, adding that Smondrowski is also a great candidate.
Challengers said the school system’s budget needed an overhaul, while incumbents wanted just tweaks to ensure continued success.
Panner compared the way the school system was handling its budget situation to the way a failing company would.
“We are in deep trouble,” he said.
When the candidates were asked how they would improve the transparency of the board, Barclay said the board deserves more credit than it gets on being transparent, although the budget could be easier to understand.
Panner, Evans and Smondrowski said that the budgeting should be done more at the community level.
Kauffman said that audits should be online, and that days of the board not being compliant with open meetings act are in the past.
Seckinger said that she is not so sure that not complying with the law is a thing of the past, and board members should be more accessible.
“Everything, with exceptions, should be done in public,” Seckinger said.