Board of Education Incumbent Faces Off Against Four Challengers in First Candidates’ Forum

One candidate repeatedly criticized the performance of at-large member Phil Kauffman at event dominated by talk of closing the achievement gap


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From left to right, at-large Board of Education candidates: Sebastian Johnson, Phil Kauffman, Gwendolyn Kimbrough, Mike Ibanez and Jeanette Dixon

Aaron Kraut

The five candidates running for an at-large seat on the Montgomery County Board of Education in the April primary election met Monday night for the first candidates’ forum, an event dominated by talk of the public school system’s longstanding achievement gap that also touched on growing class sizes and the departure of former Superintendent Joshua Starr.

“As a student member [of the board] and seeing how the board makes decisions, we need to be more open, more transparent and more honest in our dealings with the public,” said first-time candidate and former student board member Sebastian Johnson, when asked about the board’s behind-closed-door decision last year not to renew Starr’s contract.

“We need to see our role as board members as responsible to the community and not responsible to [the Montgomery County Public Schools] central office and that’s something I’m very committed to,” Johnson said. “I think that’s one of the things we need to do is to get outside of this bubble.”

Kauffman, who reportedly backed renewing Starr’s contract, nonetheless defended the closed-door meetings in which the decision was made, saying that Starr’s contract situation was a private personnel matter. The two-term at-large member from Olney also said he’s been a staunch advocate of making the board’s work more transparent, pointing to his push to televise all board committee meetings and post financial audit reports online.

“I guess I was part of that decision in terms of the superintendent. That was personnel and hiring or firing a superintendent, in this case not renewing a superintendent, is an important role for the board,” Kauffman said. “That’s something that we didn’t think it was appropriate to involve the community in.”

Starr’s departure and a failed initial search for a permanent replacement was criticized by some who said it was unclear what the eight-member body was looking for in a new leader of the 156,000-student school system.

The board agreed in early February to hire Jack Smith, the interim Maryland state superintendent, to take the position starting in July. The board is set to meet in closed session Tuesday to review the terms of Smith’s proposed contract.

Jeanette Dixon, a former MCPS high school principal  who’s also challenging Kauffman, said Monday that she disagreed with Kauffman on the secretive nature of the meetings before Starr’s resignation.

“You hired someone with a half-million dollar salary and benefits,” Dixon said. “I think you’d be accountable for saying why you did not want to keep him in that position.”

The achievement gap between students from low-income and high-income families as well as between black and Hispanic students and white and Asian students was a major topic of the forum, which was held at the school system’s Rockville headquarters.

Mike Ibanez, a former teacher who unsuccessfully ran for the board in 2010, repeatedly mentioned the school system’s failure to close the gap, directly criticizing Kauffman for the decades-long problem that also impacts school systems across the country.

“I’m making a pledge that within the next five years, by 2021, the achievement gap should end and be eliminated,” Ibanez said. “And I call on any sitting board member and any candidate running for the board, they need to take that pledge.”

Ibanez said he would close the achievement gap by offering top salaries to hire the best teachers in the country and find the revenue to do so without advocating for a property tax increase from Montgomery County leaders, something some board members have done publicly during this year’s budget cycle.

Ibanez also twice said, “I may not get elected,” indicating he’s not confident running against Kauffman, who has the backing of two dozen county elected officials including County Executive Ike Leggett and County Council Education Committee Chairman Craig Rice, or Johnson, the 27-year-old who has the backing of County Council members Nancy Navarro and George Leventhal.

Candidate Gwendolyn Kimbrough, a former Washington, D.C., education official who lives in Chevy Chase, suggested the federal government should contribute more money to Montgomery County’s school system. The board has for years focused on advocating for more operating and construction funding from the county and the state of Maryland.

“We must figure out a way to affix the increased cost for serving this increased population, which as I’ve said earlier, must be served,” said Kimbrough in a response to a question about the school system’s growing population of immigrants from Central America.

“We must find a way to affix the cost to the source of the increase and I think that goes back to the federal government,” Kimbrough said. “And I think that we have an opportunity now to ensure that this issue is taken to the federal level so that monies are increased at the federal level to help us address a local issue that’s caused by federal incompetence.”

Dixon said she’d convene what she labeled an Achievement Gap Convocation of all community stakeholders to suggest ideas for closing the gap and make the gap a standing item on the board’s agenda that’s up for review every month.

“That which gets monitored, gets done,” said Dixon, the former Montgomery County teacher and administrator who retired in 2013 as principal of Paint Branch High School in Silver Spring. Dixon also suggested creating a type of “crash-course alternative” program for new immigrant students not accustomed to schooling, requiring mandatory summer school for elementary school students not reading on grade level and maintaining a certain degree of flexibility for principals, especially when it comes to hiring new teachers.

She also said redrawing school boundaries should be considered “because what you have really is one system on the east side of the county and another on the west side and that is a result of where students live.”

Johnson, the Takoma Park resident and Montgomery Blair High School graduate who was the student member of the board during the 2005-2006 school year, said he wasn’t made aware of the Communication Arts Program—a 12-course honors-level program at Blair that’s open to students in the Downcounty Consortium—until his ninth-grade English teacher urged him to apply.

“One of the problems that we have around the achievement gap is access to these programs,” Johnson said. “We need to encourage minority students, students of color, students from disadvantaged backgrounds to apply to the programs that we already have.”

Kauffman said the county’s placement of affordable housing is more important than redrawing school boundaries in terms of putting students from lower-income schools in traditionally higher-performing schools.

“I think housing policy and affordable housing needs to be more diverse in more areas of the county,” Kauffman said.

Throughout the forum, Kauffman talked about his experience dealing with the school system’s roughly $2.4 billion annual operating budget. Toward the end of the forum, after repeated attacks from Ibanez, Kauffman pointed to two rounds of class-size increases in an era of tight county budgets as a reason for why the school system’s achievement gap doesn’t seem to be decreasing.

He did say that his “best achievement” on the board came in 2014 while he was serving as the board’s president. After his work with Rice, the board and county elected officials agreed to fully fund the school system’s $2.3 billion budget request by using one-time funding measures that wouldn’t impose any additional maintenance-of-effort funding requirements on the county for the next year.

When responding to a question about the board’s sometimes acrimonious relationship with council members over education budgets, Kauffman said, “We have to understand [the council] has a lot of competing needs.”

The five candidates will be on the April 26 primary ballot. The top two vote-getters will move on to the general election in November.

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