Enough good news, says Montgomery school board chief

Navarro wants General Assembly to understand why the system needs help in coping with its challenges

Friday, Dec. 15, 2006

The new president of the Montgomery County school board wants to spend more time talking about the challenges facing county schools and less time talking about their success, which she says has hurt the school system’s case for state aid.

One of the first things the school board must do is ‘‘come together as a team to defend our budget,” said President Nancy Navarro (Dist. 5) of Silver Spring. ‘‘... We need to present the human face of what we’re doing and connect the dots so the public can understand the challenges we face.”

Those challenges include an enrollment with more than 17,000 special education students, where the number of students receiving free and reduced-price meals jumped by 3,000 students to 34,000 in 2006 and the number of students with limited English skills increased by 1,200 students to 14,700.

County and school officials say those numbers lack resonance in Annapolis, where legislators from outside Montgomery County often only see schools that send a high percentage of students to college on the back of a nearly $2 billion operating budget.

‘‘It’s hard to make your case when all you talk about is how great everything is,” Navarro said. ‘‘... Why give any more money?”

‘‘There’s a certain amount of cheerleading that has to go on,” said Mark Adelman, chairman of the education committee for the Montgomery County Civic Federation.

But that rah-rah attitude cannot take the board away from its mission, he said.

‘‘My perception is that there’s too much time spent talking about how great a job is being done and not enough time spent with the public at the table in a dialogue of how do we get the job done better,” Adelman said.

Navarro’s election to the presidency had board members and observers this week talking about a shift of power and in philosophy on the board.

The new board includes two first-term members in Shirley Brandman (At large) of Bethesda and Judith R. Docca (Dist. 1) of Montgomery Village, in addition to Navarro, who was elected after serving two years as an appointment to fill a vacancy. It also includes Christopher S. Barclay of Takoma Park, who was appointed Saturday to the District 4 seat vacated by Valerie Ervin of Silver Spring upon her election to the Montgomery County Council.

‘‘The recent election has resulted in what I believe is a significant philosophical shift among members of the board in regard to the board’s role and responsibilities,” said board member Sharon W. Cox (At large) of Germantown on Tuesday in announcing that she would not seek the presidency.

Cox was the board’s vice president this year. Traditionally, the vice president becomes president the following year.

Cox said this week that the new board would do more to focus ‘‘on constituent services than to focus on teaching and learning in the classroom.”

The election of officers, which includes Brandman’s as vice president, puts Navarro — who, along with Ervin, was often an outsider on the former board — in a position to set the tone for the board for the year to come.

It is a year when the board will make its case for a $1.98 billion operating budget, unveiled Wednesday amid talk of a tighter fiscal outlook for the county, and when it will decide whether to renew the contract of Superintendent Jerry D. Weast.

Adelman said he thinks Weast, who has enjoyed broad support among board members since being hired in August 1999, has not been challenged enough by past school boards.

‘‘From my point of view, [Navarro] was articulating a position of a lot of people that the board was not providing enough direction, perhaps, for the superintendent,” he said.

Navarro also plans to focus on special education, middle school reform and the achievement gap between some African American and Hispanic students and their peers, including why African Americans and Hispanics are suspended at a higher rate than their classmates.

As for Cox’s mention of ‘‘constituent services,” Navarro said she was elected to represent students, parents, teachers, principals, support service workers and county taxpayers, not to micromanage the school system.

Former board president Charles Haughey said Navarro and Brandman ‘‘are very well qualified to lead board discussions, and I’m comfortable that they will draw out opinions of other people and listen to them.”

Navarro said her job is to question why certain students are not performing as well as others. But her style has earned her critics among some current and former board colleagues.

One of those is Stephen N. Abrams (Dist. 2) of Rockville, the lone dissenting vote to Navarro’s and Brandman’s election.

‘‘I don’t view this as a philosophical shift,” Abrams said Thursday. ‘‘I view this as a power play.”

Former board member Gabriel Romero voted for Navarro’s appointment in 2004, a vote he said he now regrets.

‘‘Given the tone that she and Valerie established on the board, looking back on it, yes, I regret it,” he said. ‘‘The visceral, confrontational attitude established for the board, always putting the argument on a moralistic tone, I don’t think it behooves everyone.”

The past two years following the addition of Navarro and Ervin to the board ‘‘has tarnished the image of the board as a consensus board,” Romero said.

Navarro said she wants to put aside personal differences among board members and build consensus.

‘‘If that’s Mr. Romero’s personal observation, that’s fine,” Navarro said. ‘‘Do I think it’s important to still acknowledge where our gaps may be and then talk about how we plan to address those questions? Absolutely.”