School board candidates look for a defining issue

PTA backgrounds, support for funding are common themes

Wednesday, Aug. 30, 2006

With two county school board members vacating their seats and another running for the County Council, this year’s election has the potential to significantly change the face of the school board.

The nonpartisan board election features 11 candidates, including seven who have strong PTA ties and an unchallenged incumbent.

What it lacks is a defining issue.

The largest field is vying for the at large seat being vacated by board President Charles Haughey of Rockville.

Former county council of PTAs vice president Shirley Brandman, teacher Dana Eugene Gassaway, former House of Delegates candidate and teacher John Horan Latham, PTA advocate and repeat board candidate Tommy Le and community advocate Arquilla Ridgell are campaigning for the seat.

The most tightly contested race could come in District 5, where incumbent board member Nancy Navarro, who was appointed to replace Henry Lee in December 2004, is trying to retain her seat against two longtime PTA advocates, Phillip Kauffman and Susie Werner Scofield. Kauffman, of Olney, is an area vice president for the Northeast Consortium and Sherwood clusters. Scofield, of Derwood, has served as cluster coordinator in the Magruder and Seneca Valley clusters.

Patricia B. O’Neill of Bethesda, who once served as coordinator of the Whitman cluster and is the board member with the longest continuous service, is running unopposed in District 3.

In District 1, where board member Gabriel Romero of Montgomery Village is not returning, private school teacher Michael Ibañez of Montgomery Village, who ran unsuccessfully for the board in 2002 and 2004, faces former principal Judy Docca of Montgomery Village.

The board comprises seven seats elected by voters countywide and a student member elected each year by secondary school students. The top two vote-getters in the Sept. 12 primary advance to the Nov. 7 general election.

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Board member Valerie Ervin (Dist. 4) of Silver Spring is running for the District 5 seat on the County Council. With two years remaining on her board term, if Ervin wins a council seat, the new board would have to appoint a replacement.

With two — and possibly three — departures, it is clear that the makeup of the board will change. Any distinctions between the priorities that could come with the new members are less clear.

Next year, the new board will open negotiations with three employees unions and will consider a new contract for Superintendent Jerry D. Weast.

The current board was seen as giving a vote of confidence to Weast in July when it passed a resolution commending his service and backing the reform measures he has taken in his seven years at the helm.

Montgomery County spends $1.8 billion — about half its operating budget — on schools, yet it is frequently noted that just one-quarter of county taxpayers have children in the school system. The county has increased spending on schools by more than 90 percent over the past 12 years, with little outcry from taxpayers about overspending.

At a forum on Thursday, the most telling question came when candidates were asked where they would look to trim if they were forced to cut 10 percent of the school system’s budget.

With 90 percent of the school system’s budget going toward salaries, Brandman, Navarro and Kauffman said they would look at how much goes toward putting teachers in the classroom and how much goes to central office administrators.

Brandman, of Bethesda, said she also would look at technology.

‘‘Sometimes as a PTA we say we’ve never met a technology we didn’t like,” she said. The board must limit spending to technology that is most helpful to teachers, she said.

Navarro, of Silver Spring, agreed that technology costs could be trimmed. The number of glossy publications produced by the communications office also could be reduced, she said.

Scofield said the system could look to businesses and organizations for financial support.

‘‘I think we could cut our litigation costs by somewhat of a culture change,” she said, adding that giving parents of special education students more input on their child’s academic plan would avoid lawsuits.

Kauffman agreed that the board could cut printing and litigation costs, especially in special education cases. The Office of the Superintendent ‘‘has worked” since its creation several years ago, he said. ‘‘But it is not a critical office” and he would look to cut ‘‘some of those middle management positions,” he said.

Latham, of North Bethesda, said he would cut drug and sex education, which he said should be taught at home, and cut bilingual education ‘‘since English is the language of the United States.”

Gassaway, of Silver Spring, said he would cut ‘‘audio-visual programs” and look to offer a ‘‘fleet of cars” in order to more efficiently transport special needs students.

Le, of Silver Spring, said he would not cut salaries or teaching positions, but would reduce transportation costs, by combining two half-days on the school calendar into one day off for students.