Friday, October 12, 2012

Summary of BOE Candidates Forum - Oct. 10th - Silver Spring


Frederick Stichnoth, fred.stichnoth AT
October 11, 2012

            A ninety-minute BOE candidates’ Forum on Public Safety was conducted October 10th in Silver Spring, sponsored by Safe Silver Spring, Prezco (President’s Council of Silver Spring Civic Associations), MCCPTA and Montgomery County Civic Federation.

            Fred Evans and Rebecca Smondrowski (District 2), Chris Barclay and Annita Seckinger (District 4), and Phil Kauffman (At-large) appeared; Morris Panner (At-large) was absent but was represented by his friend David Esquith.

            The audience consisted of about 25 people (apparently largely from local, down-county environs). The following notables were noted: Lynne Harris, MCCPTA Vice President of Education Issues; Shebra Evans, MCCPTA Vice President of Programs; Larry Edmunds, MCCPTA Vice President of Legislation; Jen Bondeson, Gazette reporter.  

            Questions were asked by Tony Hausner (Safe Silver Spring) and Evan Glass (Prezco), and two members of the audience. Some questions were derived from Safe Silver Spring’s September 13, 2012 “School Board Questionnaire,” which some of the candidates had answered.

            This summary presents Candidates’ Responses and My Reflections.

Candidates’ Responses

            Question 1: school resource officers.

            Fred Evans. Mr. Evans supports SRO’s if the program “operates effectively:” officers must be properly trained and must get to know the kids.

            Rebecca Smondrowski. Ms. Smondrowski supports SRO’s but would make unspecified changes to the program. MCPS must work collaboratively with the County Council (as she has a record of doing).

            Chris Barclay. “Safety and security are paramount.” The issues with the program are budget and management. If MCPS contributes to program funding, it must be able to manage the officers.

            Annita Seckinger. We must examine why we need these officers. We have problems in the schools and must teach conflict resolution to the students.

            Phil Kauffman. Mr. Kauffman supports the program and would expand it. The issue is, who pays? Typically in Maryland, counties pay for these officers. Even if MCPS paid, the maintenance of effort law would require a commensurate increase of County funding.

            David Esquith/Morris Panner. Mr. Panner would “think out of the box,” on this question and generally. He would examine what the research shows. In this case, the research shows that the program does not have a positive effect: schools are no safer, their climate is degraded, and minority students find SRO’s difficult. Mr. Panner would change the background.

            Question 2: truancy court program.

            David Esquith/Morris Panner. Mr. Panner would review research to determine whether the program was cost effective. We must distinguish an education program from a criminal program.

            Phil Kauffman. If State’s Attorney John McCarthy supports it, Mr. Kauffman supports it. MCPS is expanding the local program from Key to Neelesville and Loiederman Middle Schools. Again, the issue is, who pays? MCPS cannot just pick up the tab.

            Annita Seckinger. Ms. Seckinger would focus on why students are truant.

            Chris Barclay. Mr. Barclay would ask why students are truant and what’s going on at home. MCPS may need to “partner” (apparently a funding reference) with the Department of Health and Human Services and with Mental Health Association. We must ask what MCPS needs to do to get students engaged.

            Rebecca Smondrowski. We must make sure students are engaged. John McCarthy is a great friend of hers. This is a great program.

            Fred Evans. Giving two examples from Gaithersburg High School where he was principal, Mr. Evans said that MCPS must create a climate where intervention by private groups is acceptable.

            Question 3: fostering parent involvement (with reference to neighborhood schools with high FARMS rates).

            Chris Barclay. Mr. Barclay cited past Board outreach strategies: Parent Academies and PTA single-cluster meetings. These are not enough. Not everyone is involved in PTA. The Board must push its message out, getting out into the community, and not just at election time. He understands the concerns.

            Annita Seckinger. The Board must reach out, attend meetings in the community, and be accessible through email and home telephone to communication.

            Phil Kauffman. Mr. Kauffman agrees that the Board must get its message out more. It has an advantage in that the new Superintendent is pursuing new ways to reach out. The Board must move beyond the PTA: it hears from PTA a lot, but many people don’t participate.

            David Esquith/Morris Panner. Mr. Panner would examine things from the other end of the telescope. Parents have a very small window into the school. Board members must accommodate parents, asking what the parents want.

            Fred Evans. Mr. Evans’s campaign platform proposes “Educate the BOE” forums. Parent communications are irrelevant if the school does not follow up. MCPS must engage, especially in poor communities.

            Rebecca Smondrowski. Ms. Smondrowski would continue her record of presence in the community and advocacy.

            Question 4: vocational education expansion.

            Annita Seckinger. Ms. Seckinger is a huge believer in vocational education, which would have been more appropriate for her than was college. Not every child will or should attend college. Society should not view them as inferior if they do not attend.

            Chris Barclay. Mr. Barclay said that career and technical education (CTE) should be available for students who want to learn. MCPS students need more options. Edison is a wonderful school. MCPS must have “vision forward,” including CTE and distance learning. To succeed, all students need baseline skills.

            Rebecca Smondrowski. She would work to expand voc-ed and special education.

            Fred Evans. We are wrong in our disproportionate emphasis on “college” readiness. Vocational education students still need the core curriculum. Edison is a great school.

            David Esquith/Morris Panner. Mr. Panner does not want his special education child to be a victim of low expectations, shunted into vocational education. Mr. Panner would ask how effective the program is, reviewing outcomes, consulting research. Vocational education should prepare students for future jobs, not the jobs of 10-15 years ago.

            Phil Kauffman. MCPS must not “track” students because of their special needs. Vocational education should be an option for all students. Vocational education should provide students with the option to go to college. Edison is great, but undersubscribed. The Board has asked MCPS staff to determine why students are not choosing Edison.


            Question 5: disproportionate minority suspensions.

            Fred Evans. This is a problem. We must analyze why it occurs, looking not only at data but at personal stories. MCPS must face the racial differences in its schools by talking with staff about equitable treatment. Pending MSDE regulations should not ban expulsion for weapons, physical assault and drug infractions.

            Rebecca Smondrowski. Ms. Smondrowski does not believe in out-of-school suspensions. We must determine why students aren’t engaged, and train staff to deal with this issue.

            Chris Barclay. Mr. Barclay said that MCPS has black male disproportionality problems with discipline and special education. Staff must engage and get to know kids. Black males, whose bodies are growing and hormones raging in middle school, are disciplined for dubious infractions like “insubordination.” Suspension more than one time per year predicts school failure. MCPS must get to the root issue: put race on the table.

            Annita Seckinger. Ms. Seckinger is not a fan of suspension: students need to be in class. Race and ethnicity makes a difference: MCPS is diverse. She would increase the ratio of minority teachers and be sure that teachers are culturally competent.

            Phil Kauffman. MCPS must be sure MCPS is culturally competent. There is disproportionality in treatment. We need to look at the data. He does not favor suspensions. He is concerned about pending MSDE regulation of discipline and suspension.

            David Esquith/Morris Panner. Mr. Panner was a prosecutor: he understands crime. There is an “epidemic of expulsion.” The education system dropped the ball in this case, as it did in civil rights, special education, and female extracurricular activity; then the judicial system had to take over. He noted a conflict between supporting SRO’s and banning expulsion. We must find an evidence-based solution.

            Barclay/Esquith exchange. Following Mr. Esquith’s response, Mr. Barclay erupted with frustration. He asked what Mr. Esquith meant: schools triumphed in these instances; they did not “drop the ball.” Mr. Barclay said that “folks are throwing out platitudes; we’re dealing with real kids’ lives.”

            Mr. Esquith calmly explained that in the instances he mentioned, either the courts or Congress were required to intervene because the schools did not sufficiently address these equity issues themselves.

            Audience Question 6: guidance counselors.

            Rebecca Smondrowski. Ms. Smondrowski said that MCPS must increase the number of counselors and change their allocation. Now MCPS allocates strictly according to the number of students in the schools; MCPS should evaluate schools’ needs, “based on sheer whatever.” We must be aware of what’s happening with our students.

            Fred Evans. Students watch how adults discipline other students. This contributes to a spirit in the schools that kids understand.

            Chris Barclay. Supportive counselors and professional development in class management support kids in understanding their lives. The Board weighs one need against another. A lot is done by formula. It is a struggle to balance, especially when money is short.

            Annita Seckinger. Ms. Seckinger serves as a volunteer mediator in the schools. Some schools do not admit mediators because they do not want to acknowledge a problem in the school. MCPS has claimed that Montgomery County does not have gangs; that is “just simply not true.”

            Phil Kauffman. Mr. Kauffman said that this question brings the discussion back to budget. He reviewed the formulaic ratios for counselors and psychologists. The ratios have worsened as MCPS enrollment has grown.

            David Esquity/Morris Panner. Mr. Esquith referred to several behavior modification programs. Four percent of students require intensive mental health intervention. We must examine this issue at the systemic level, not position by position.

            Audience Question 7: Styrofoam trays. A very bright, articulate, self-possessed student from Piney Branch Elementary School forcefully renewed the question of whether MCPS would support a pilot dishwasher program to replace these “neuro-toxic” trays.

            David Esquith/Morris Panner. Mr. Panner would support this pilot program.

            Phil Kauffman. The Board did not do a good job in responding to this question when it was previously raised by the school. It raises the issue of Board role. The Board should not micro-manage MCPS, directing programs at any one school. Mr. Kauffman thinks the suggestion is wonderful and hopes the Superintendent will support it. The Board is waiting for the Superintendent’s decision.

            Annita Seckinger. Ms. Seckinger does not see why the Board cannot direct this pilot program.

            Chris Barclay. Piney Branch has done a great job in forwarding this proposal. Mr. Barclay sponsored a resolution to reduce MCPS’ “carbon footprint.” MCPS already has taken certain steps: apparently eliminating trays from high schools. However, the Board’s job is policy and finance, not operations; that’s why the Board hires a Superintendent.

            Rebecca Smondrowski. Ms. Smondrowski gives the Piney Branch proposal her “100 percent commitment.” While it is not the Board’s job to dictate to the Superintendent, its job is to represent citizens.

            Fred Evans. Mr. Evans said that the Board has every right to present this initiative to the Superintendent; the Board has “influence” to attain its purpose.

My Reflections

            Candidates’ perspectives. Observing a span uncluttered with substance (“folks are throwing out platitudes here,” Mr. Barclay unselfconsciously noticed), characteristic candidate perspectives are easy to discern.

            Fred Evans offers in-school experience; Rebecca Smondrowski—collaboration. Chris Barclay offers passion coupled with on-the-job know-how; Annita Seckinger—sympathy for kids. Phil Kauffman seems willingly fettered by role restrictions; Morris Panner (if you can believe David Esquith, which I do)—analysis.

            I like in-school experience, on-the-job know-how and analysis, each with a caveat.

            It is not yet clear, despite our experience with Mike Durso, that in-school experience does not limit the ability to see long-standing problems and to bring disruptive change. This concern is exacerbated, in Mr. Evans’s case, because he is embraced by MCEA—the teachers’ union (as are incumbents Barclay and Kauffman). MCEA power is wielded where it does not belong.

            In the same way as in-school experience, on-the-job know-how facilitates operations, except when it becomes hide-bound organizational passivity. Mr. Kauffman’s tired responses suggest he learned too well from strong-willed Superintendents Weast and Starr, from MABE training and Broad seminars. It sure looks like the current Board is being lead by the nose.

            Study delay. Analysis, “outside the box,” and the “other end of the telescope,” sound pretty atypical for the Board. (I distinguish simple focus and forthrightness that seem to be disqualifying characteristics, as Ms. Berthiaume’s fate suggests.) Mr. Morris (channeled by Mr. Esquith) seemed to display some homework analysis when he advised that SRO’s do not work. Most other times, repetition of his main qualification covered over a failure to have substantive answers to the questions.

            Of course, this was only a variation of the tack taken by other candidates: Ms. Seckinger thought that we must examine why we need SRO’s. Incumbent Kauffman wanted to determine why Edison is undersubscribed. Despite his experience, Mr. Evans still needs to “analyze why” disproportionate minority suspension occurs; incumbent Kauffman needs to “look at the data.” Ms. Smondrowski would determine why students aren’t engaged.

            New studies come every day, and I hope MCPS, the Board and parents will continue to review and debate them. On the other hand, some problems have been with us for decades. A claim for more study time does not excuse inaction.

            Money delay. Our know-how guys, Barclay and Kauffman, defend inaction on the basis of budget constriction generally and a game with the Council of budget blackmail in particular. This seems to reflect our pathetic national melodrama.

            Lightness of dis-placement. Unlike any other forum I’ve seen, this one was thrown by a particular neighborhood and the questions particularly reflected that neighborhood’s concerns. Our candidates missed this, in their intense preoccupation with the generic.

            It is no accident that questions regarding SRO’s, truant officers, vocational education and disproportionate minority suspension were not emanating from Bethesda.

            So, to return to the previous comment, our candidates were unaware that the hostages in their money game are the Silver Spring people looking for public safety. And Chris “Safety and security are paramount…we’re dealing with real kids’ lives” Barclay represents the Downcounty Consortium!

            While the budget may not meet hopes, or even needs, the Board must spend the budget WHERE the need is greatest.

            There were a couple of good, if grossly understated, exceptions. Ms. Smondrowski stated the MCPS should evaluate schools’ needs “based on sheer whatever” (I think she was searching for “educational load” or degree of concentrated poverty). Ms. Seckinger knows that a gang-free MoCo is just not true.

            Constricted Board function. The Board displays profound decorum in deferring to the Superintendent on the neuro-toxic tray issue. And its learned formulaic responses protect it from acknowledging need in the red zone. Despite Board policy and regulation (on educational load, for example) and Board resolution (on choice parameters, for example), the Board does not act.

            The Board has power and a paramount political function. What is it doing?

            Final miscellany. I salute Mr. Barclay for trying to keep race on the table; I hope he’ll also locate it on the map.

            MCCPTA has been MCPS’ partner, and PTA’s have been MCPS’ primary vehicle of parent engagement. Insiders Barclay and Kauffman, apparently following the Superintendent’s lead, want to supplant PTA’s. If I were MCCPTA, I’d feel dissed. (On the other hand, MCCPTA is outsourcing its function—to the Parent Leadership Group, for example—so maybe it’s in on the game.) Myself—I’ve seen the best of times and the worst of times with MCCPTA. I hope the best will resume. I’m concerned about MCCPTA’s demotion, and potential replacement by isolated and powerless small groups propped up by MCPS itself.

1 comment:

  1. "David Esquith/Morris Panner. Mr. Panner does not want his special education child to be a victim of low expectations, shunted into vocational education. Mr. Panner would ask how effective the program is, reviewing outcomes, consulting research."

    Ok, first thought on this whole substitute for a candidate in a debate? If the guy himself couldn't show, no surrogates should be allowed! What the hell? I have thought Panner was a phony from the beginning and now I'm convinced.

    Second, that "special ed" vo-tech-low-expectation shunting comment is offensive to me as a parent of a Edison student who was also in special ed in middle school (until he did SO WELL with his accommodations that the JW coordinator heartlessly kicked him out). I am disgusted!

    Thanks to the others for their positive comments--and support--for Edison. It's been a long struggle to get Edison the respect it is due and we must remain vigilant to protect its financing and programs from the whims of some as the modernization goes forward.


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