Challenger for Board of Education Showing Significant Financial Support

Sebastian Johnson, who’s taking on at-large incumbent Phil Kauffman and three other candidates, raised almost $18,000 in three months for primary race


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From a February candidate's forum, the at-large Board of Education candidates (from left to right): Sebastian Johnson, Phil Kauffman, Gwendolyn Kimbrough, Mike Ibanez and Jeanette Dixon

Aaron Kraut

Updated at 3:10 p.m. - Three of the five candidates for an at-large seat on the county Board of Education took part in a forum Thursday night in North Bethesda, the same week one of the candidates boasted of a significant campaign fundraising advantage and growing support from local Democrats.

Sebastian Johnson, the former student member of the board and one of four candidates taking on incumbent Phil Kauffman, reported raising $17,711.64 from January to March in his campaign financing report due Tuesday. Johnson’s campaign reported more than $16,000 on-hand.

Kauffman reported raising $1,250 in the same period with $1,204 on-hand. Jeanette Dixon, the retired principal of Paint Branch High School, reported raising $1,170 in the last three months with $821 on-hand. She reported raising $4,060 in her first campaign finance report the period between Dec. 7 and Jan. 13.

Mike Ibanez, a former teacher also running for the seat, has said he won’t raise more than $1,000 in the race. Gwendolyn Kimbrough, a former D.C. schools official who lives in Chevy Chase, was issued a $60 violation for failing to file her campaign finance report by the March 22 deadline. Both Ibanez and Kimbrough didn’t attend the Thursday night forum at Luxmanor Elementary School.

In a press release, Johnson’s campaign said it had “raised more funds than all other competitors combined.” The release said that Johnson has received new endorsements from District 15 State Sen. Brian Feldman and District 16 Del. Marc Korman.

It also included words of support from County Council Education Committee Chairman Craig Rice, who has endorsed Kauffman in the race.

“I'm really impressed by Sebastian Johnson. He's smart, passionate about making our schools better for every student, and would do a fantastic job on the board,” Rice said in the press release, which said Rice “has not officially endorsed Sebastian.”

“We need more young people like Sebastian to step up and keep our county moving forward,” Rice said, according to the press release.

Rice’s statement of support was the latest apparent snub of Kauffman, the two-term incumbent from Olney who on Thursday said he understands the school system’s budget “better than anybody.”

The Montgomery County Education Association, the teachers’ union known for distributing its Apple Ballot list of endorsements at polling places, decided earlier this month not to make an endorsement in the at-large primary race, despite endorsing Kauffman in the 2012 primary and making an endorsement in a contested board race in the 2014 primary.

Many in the Luxmanor neighborhood, which hosted the event, had concerns about overcrowding in the Walter Johnson High School cluster.

During Thursday’s forum, which consisted mostly of smaller group discussions between attendees and the candidates Kauffman said the County Council and county Planning Department need to consider limiting residential development or requiring developers to pay more for new school facilities.

“We do need to look at our growth policies and work with [Planning Department] and see whether or not they make sense, because the reality is the County Council has basically given, I would say, a blank check to developers to build notwithstanding the capacity of our infrastructure to absorb the growth,” Kauffman said. “We need to look to see whether or not we can ask developers to pay for school additions because surrounding school districts are doing just that, and we’re not.”

Johnson, 27, said the school system “can’t build our way out of” overcapacity schools and suggested classes with teams of two teachers to help better manage and instruct students.

“I’ve developed good relationships with County Council members and have been endorsed by a couple,” Johnson said, referring to endorsements from council members Nancy Navarro and George Leventhal. “I think we need to do a much better job of coordinating our strategy around how we approach the state and how we work with our state delegation to get more funding, but also how we set priorities and policies for our school system so that we’re all on the same page.”

Dixon said developers should pay more for school facilities and that the school system should consider moving students in overcapacity schools to schools that have space. But after Kauffman said the idea of boundary changes “are not realistic,” Dixon jumped in to say she wasn’t suggesting boundary changes.

Dixon also told the approximately 40 attendees she hasn’t asked elected officials for endorsements, “because I believe it is inappropriate in a non-partisan election to the school board for them to try to dictate who serves on the board.”

“Politics has no place in the education of our children,” Dixon said.

Kauffman has endorsements from three dozen local elected officials, including County Executive Ike Leggett, council members Sidney Katz and Hans Riemer and state legislators.

The top two vote-getters in the April 26 primary will move on to November’s general election.

The event Thursday also included Shebra Evans and Anjali Reed Phukan the two candidates for the District 4 board seat being vacated by Chris Barclay. Evans and Phukan will automatically move on to November’s general election.

In smaller group discussions, Kauffman spoke about the board’s oversight role of school system staff and said, “anything you say at a board meeting, it sends a signal.”

He referred to pointed questions he asked staff after a recent report showed declining literacy rates that “at least set off some discussion inside the world of Carver,” referring to the school system’s administrative offices at the Carver Educational Services Center in Rockville.

When asked a question about the board’s closed-sessions last year before and after former Superintendent Joshua Starr’s departure, Johnson said the board “lost a lot of goodwill from a lot of people.”

Johnson also recalled closed executive sessions while he was a student member of the board during the 2005-2006 school year in which “lawyers are telling you what to do not to get sued.” He pledged a more open relationship with parents and non-parents in neighborhoods that may be affected by new school construction.

When asked if the school system devotes too much of its budget to teacher and staff salary increases, Dixon said she supports teacher raises, but said the board can do a better job of evaluating and making staffing changes to programs that may not require as much staff as they currently have.

“I’m going to be honest,” Dixon said. “I’m for teacher raises. We have really been balancing the budget on the backs of our teachers for too long.”

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