In the final weeks leading up to the Nov. 6 election, the five candidates running for the Frederick County Board of Education are straying away from direct attacks and confrontation.
Yet, the divide between the two camps of candidates remains clear on what they see as the top priorities for the school system in the coming years.
That became obvious again Monday night when all five candidates attended a forum organized by The Frederick News Post, WFMD and Frederick Community College and fielded a barrage of questions on everything from bullying to spending and charter schools.
As they answered the questions, incumbent board member Kathryn “Katie” Groth and challengers Zakir Bengali and Joy Schaefer kept their focus on investment in education, equalizing resources across the school system and student achievement.
But candidates Tony Chmelik and Colleen Cusimano pushed for greater budget discipline and transparency, more flexibility for charter schools and more willingness on the part of the school board to question existing policies, procedures and staff decisions.
Nor did Cusimano and Chmelik hesitate to criticize the school system for its past decisions on spending, charter schools and the controversial $16.7 million central office building.
Among other issues, the pair challenged the process that the school system uses to build its budget, arguing that instead of relying on its staff, the board should start from scratch and build a line-item spending plan that makes it easy to see areas of waste.
Cusimano, an information-technology specialist and a former Frederick County Public Schools’ employee, said the board does not spend enough time digging into the proposed budget to “get down to the granular level.”
“We can do better, we must do better,” said Cusimano, who noted that she saw a “tremendous amount of waste” while working for the school system.
Chmelik agreed, saying the board should be digging deeper into staff budget decisions, such as Schools Superintendent Theresa Alban‘s recent cost-neutral central office reorganization. The board should have directed Alban to cut central office spending by 5 percent, he said.
“I believe we can find waste,” Chmelik said.
Chmelik, who owns a construction business in Frederick County, also advocated a line-item budget and said he would push for an intensive audit of each school system department. He also criticized the school system for its decision to build a new central office building and pay for it from the operating budget.
“I think it was money that was wasted,” he said.
Groth, however, defended the school system’s decision on the central office building, saying it allowed the system to consolidate administrators, save money and be more efficient.
A retired speech pathologist who is serving her third term on the board, Groth said she would challenge critics to identify areas in the operating budget that can be cut, insisting that everything in the budget is necessary for the system to operate at its current level.
“I am not interested in cutting food and transportation,” she said.
Schaefer, a Frederick mother of three, vowed to manage the school system resources efficiently with a focus on providing the same resources and educational opportunities for all children in the system. Schaefer countered Chmelik when he said that having more charter schools will save money.
Chmelik noted that charter schools such as the Frederick Classical Charter School would have cost the system $3.5 million compared to $25 million that the school system spent on renovating Lincoln Elementary School. But Schaefer noted that the school system spends a different amount of money on each child, depending on that child’s needs.
“Just because they go to a charter school, it doesn’t mean they cost us less to educate,” she said.
Bengali also said at the forum that he would be reluctant to focus all his attention on spending and budget issues. The school system needs to focus on ensuring that all children who are students today are prepared for the jobs of the future, when technology would create a need for highly-skilled workers, he said.
The forum was the latest event in the highly contested, high-stakes race for the school board, which this year has been unusually polarized for what is supposed to be a nonpartisan election.
The five candidates who participated in the forum are competing for three seats on the seven-member school board, which holds staggered elections every two years.
The three new members of the board will replace school board President Angie Fish, whose term expires in December, and school board member Donna Crook, who was defeated in the April 3 primary election.
The stakes in this year’s school board election are higher this year because the outcome of the election could change the status quo on current school board positions.
Since the last election in 2010, the board has been frequently voting 4-3, with board members Groth, Fish, Jean Smith and Crook standing in opposition to Brad Young, James “Jimmy” Reeder Jr. and April Miller.
Young, Reeder and Miller, who ran together with Cusimano on a platform of fiscal responsibility, were all elected to the board in 2010, along with four of the five members in the current board of the Frederick County Board of Commissioners.
The race became even more complicated when school board candidate Tom Shade, one of the front-runners in the primary, announced that he was dropping out of the race for medical reasons. Shade stepped down before the withdrawal deadline and his name will still appear on the Nov. 6 ballot, meaning he still has an option to serve if he gets enough votes. But Shade has said he will not do so.
If he gets enough votes in the election and chooses not to serve, the commissioners will be required to appoint someone to serve on the board in his place.
The race became polarized in the months leading up to the primary when the candidates were divided into camps based on whether they received endorsements from the Frederick County Teachers Association or from commissioners’ President Blaine R. Young.
Concerned that the teachers union had too much influence on the school board election and the final slate of candidates, Young announced his own selection of fiscally conservative board contenders.
Union officials, on the other hand, said they backed candidates who they felt would best represent the interests of students and teachers.
Cusimano and Chmelik received Young’s endorsement in the primary, while Groth, Bengali and Schaefer were backed by the union.
The division between candidates widened even further in June when some county parents created a political action committee, A Better Choice Frederick. Organizers said the idea was to counterbalance the influence of the union over the election and give a greater voice to parents.
Based on a candidate questionnaire, the PAC has backed Chmelik and Cusimano in the election. Groth, Bengali and Schaefer did not respond to the group’s questionnaire.
Earlier in the race, the Republican Central Committee also authorized a slate card listing Cusimano and Chmelik along with all Republican candidates in 2012. And the GOP in July refused to allow Schaefer to put her campaign materials at their table.
As the race enters its final stages, some school board candidates have expressed disappointment with the polarization.
“It has caused people to chose sides,” Schaefer said. “I’d like to see this be the last year that this happens.”
Groth agreed, saying the polarization should not take precedence over the needs of schools and students.
“It’s become partisan and it is not supposed to be partisan,” she said “It’s made the process quite uncomfortable ... It has become about what group you represent.”
Bengali also lamented the polarization and vowed to leave his politics out of school business if he gets elected to the board.
“It has saddened me,” he said. “I have not changed my campaign at all. I have decided that this is not a political game for me.”
Cusimano agreed that the race has been more polarized this year, placing her and Chmelik in a separate camp.
“Every election is different,” she said. “But this is definitely more polarized. You are either on the right or on the left. We are the more conservative candidates.”