For the first time in Baltimore City’s history, voters on Tuesday will get a chance to elect two members of the Board of School Commissioners. The city will join many localities across the state that have moved recently to an all elected or hybrid school board.
The shift comes four years after Baltimore County began electing seven of its 11 school board members to four-year terms.
Eight candidates are running for two elected spots on the city school board, all of which are at-large positions, after legislation passed the Maryland General Assembly, creating the hybrid city board. The positions are nonpartisan, so any registered voter can vote in the school board contests. The field will be narrowed down to four candidates after the primary.
The Baltimore Teachers Union has endorsed Ashley Esposito and Salimah Jasani.
Seven of the candidates responded to interview requests from The Baltimore Banner. Kevin W. Parson is the eighth candidate. Here is a look at the candidates:
Karen Yosafat Beleck
Beleck, 63, is an upper Park Heights resident whose children were home-schooled or attended private, Jewish schools. A percussionist and an artist, she would like to provide more opportunities for arts instruction, gym classes and play. A 30-year resident of the city, Beleck said she would push to introduce an hour-long immersion class in elementary schools so that students can learn about a subject that might turn into a lifelong passion or a job later.
She doesn’t believe in mask-wearing and would have returned students to classrooms in the fall of 2020. “I would have fought tooth-and-nail to get kids back in schools,” she said. As for a current hot topic among conservatives, she added, “critical race theory does not belong in public education.”
Beleck supports more opportunities for career and technology classes for high school students. She said she would like to see them learn cake decorating, home economics, HVAC, plumbing and automotive skills. The school system has multiple high schools offering Career and Technical Education (CTE) classes, but Beleck said more schools should.
Tests, she said, should not be given for grades or to determine whether a student passes or fails. “They should be a marker for what you know and what you don’t know,” she said.
She believes schools should help bring change to the city. “I keep hearing about equity. I believe equity is outcomes,” she said. “The lack of equity is the lack of exposure to the things that more affluent families can offer.”
April Christina Curley
Curley, 35, is a Mount Vernon resident working for the Last Mile Education Fund at the Digital Harbor Foundation. The fund provides support to low-income people pursuing degrees in technology. A former teacher, Curley taught for two years at the Vivien T. Thomas Medical Arts Academy before working for Teach For America recruiting Black teachers from Historically Black Colleges and Universities. She has also worked for Google, recruiting Black and brown college students to the tech company.
“I have seen very clearly what skills are needed to be successful in the workforce,” said Curley.
She has three priorities: improving transportation for students, providing more mental health services and improving career and technical education. Baltimore City is the only school system in the state where students must take public transportation to school. “When I see our kids taking two or three buses to get to school in the morning, that upsets me,” she said, adding that better transportation is key to reducing tardiness and truancy.
She also would take police officers out of the schools and use the money to provide students with better mental health services. “We have to increase quality mental health services in each and every school in the system,” she said.
Asked about CEO Sonja Santelises, she described her as intelligent but “lacking the radical vision” needed. “Our kids are dying. They are being left behind. This is not a student problem. This is an adult problem.”
She is supportive of a lawsuit filed by two parents, Jovani and Shawnda Patterson, that accuses the system’s leadership of illegal activities and corruption.
Ashley E. Esposito
Ashley Esposito, 37, works as an IT analyst with the Maryland Department of Human Services. The mother of a 2-year-old who she says will attend public schools, Esposito said she would approach the school board position as a parent and community activist. The Violetville resident moved to the city in 2016 and chose a house in the neighborhood where she wanted to send her child to school.
“I am somebody who is going to put community and student voices first. I am not coming in as an educator,” she said. She believes the school system should be more responsive to community concerns. Too often, she said, school system leaders respond to individual parents who have issues, but don’t fix the underlying problem that the parent highlighted.
“I think it is important to lean into those difficult conversations and work to address and acknowledge the community concerns,” she said. Too many parents, she said, turn to TV news stations to solve problems.
Esposito said she doesn’t know Santelises and would hold off on making a judgment about her performance until Santelises gets her annual review from the board. She said Santelises has done some good work, but posed the question of whether she should have achieved more after six years in the job.
She also believes the community should have more time for input during board meetings. “I don’t think they appreciate discourse that isn’t positive,” Esposito said. “I think we need to be real about the issues and give the community space to speak up.”
Salimah Jasani, 29, has a background in education. After working as a special education teacher at Digital Harbor High in Federal Hill from 2014 to 2018, she became a liaison between the Maryland State Department of Education and the Maryland Coalition for Inclusive Education, a nonprofit focused on increasing the opportunities for special ed students to be in regular classrooms. Currently, the Pen Lucy resident works for Education Elements, a company that provides advice to school districts around the country on strategic planning with an emphasis on taking into account community needs.
“I am running for school board because I see gaps and areas we could pay attention to,” she said. In the coming years, Jasani said, the board will play an important role implementing the Blueprint for Maryland’s Future, a massive investment in the next decade intended to make Maryland’s public schools the best in the nation. Making good decisions about how to spend the money and holding leaders accountable for results will be important, she said. “I am really interested in helping us think strategically,” she said. She is concerned about working to retain teachers and believes the district is making progress.
“I do think our staff in central office and across the board is dedicated to addressing the issues. I do see us moving in a positive direction and over the past several years I do think there are ways that we have taken steps to address inequity,” she said.
Michael Eugene Johnson
Michael Eugene Johnson, 66, is a lifelong Baltimore resident and graduate of Baltimore City Public Schools. He retired after working to develop small commercial projects for the Baltimore Development Corp.
From 2003 to 2006 he worked at Northwestern High School doing community outreach. He said he worked to revive school spirit, reinvigorated the school newspaper and organized school trips and speakers.
One of 11 children, he grew up in Park Heights. He and eight of his siblings went on to college.
“I don’t think the city has that love for their children. There is a nexus to crime and our city schools,” Johnson said. He would like to see changes to CTE. Students should not be working on gas-powered engines “when people are going to be driving electric cars,” he said.
Johnson also wants to raise academic standards and require that parents become more involved.
He said he has run a campaign that includes getting out on the streets and talking to people, but he is concerned that more voters aren’t aware of the school board election.
Kwame Kenyatta-Bey, 67, teaches U.S. History to students whose second language is English at Patterson High School. He has raised three grandchildren who have attended city schools, the last of whom graduated this year.
“My big agenda item is communication. I would like to see a complete auditing of our communications internally and externally,” he said.
Kenyatta-Bey doesn’t believe individual departments within the system communicate well. “I have called North Avenue. From department to department, not one knew what the other was doing.” In addition, he believes parents and community members too often haven’t been invited into schools and their voices aren’t listened to.
The election of two new school board members, he said, is a pivotal shift for the city school system. Two people will be “beholden to the citizens of Baltimore” rather than the mayor, who appoints the remainder of the board members.
“We have taken the schools out of the hands of the community and yet we turn around and want to blame the community for certain problems,” he said.
Cortly “C.D.” Witherspoon
C.D. Witherspoon, 40, lives in Northeast Baltimore and has a son who attends Leith Walk Elementary/Middle School. The only candidate with a child in the public school system, Witherspoon said he lived most of his life in Sandtown-Winchester and believes more needs to be done to address the trauma that students come to school with because of the conditions of their neighborhoods. They walk through drug lines on the way to school, he said. “Far too many of our households are experiencing trauma and we need more help in that way,” he said.
He said he would provide more mental health professionals in schools to meet the needs of the whole family.
“The young people we are not able to embrace today are the young people who will be on our streets and engaged in inappropriate behavior tomorrow,” he said.
Witherspoon believes Santelises should be removed from her job for what he sees as failures, including students graduating without the reading and math skills they should have, and grade-changing in previous years. A Maryland Office of Inspector General for Education report released last month revealed some teachers and school administrators improperly changed high school grades between 2016 and 2019. The inspector general found no criminal intent but called for another audit.
Witherspoon believes there was corruption on the part of the administration involving the grade changing, however. School officials have denied there was any systemic attempt to push teachers to change grades and said that a 2019 policy has addressed some of the grading issues.
Kevin W. Parson