The fractious Baltimore County school board could look a lot different following an election season that begins with three primaries this month.
The board now has 12 members, but only Board Chair Julie Henn and Vice Chair Rod McMillion are certain to return. Four appointed members could leave after their terms expire in December, and three other seats will be on the July 19 primary ballot.
Current board members have been criticized as divisive and combative, with tensions laid bare this year over the performance of Superintendent Darryl Williams. The board is currently weighing a County Council’s request not to renew Williams’ contract.
A board policy that requires seven votes to pass an agenda should mean board members must find ways to compromise, but a recent court lawsuit calling that requirement into question shows that isn’t even helping board relations.
Time will only tell if a newly shaped board will result in a more compromising tone. So far, responses from the primary candidates to questionnaires sent by The Baltimore Banner show wide differences of opinion on contentious topics such as race, LGBTQ issues and masks to prevent the spread of COVID-19.
The races cover three Baltimore County districts, with each having more than two candidates. The names of the three candidates each in Districts 1 and 2, and the four candidates in District 4 will be on the ballots July 19. The top two candidates with the most votes will advance to the November 8 election. Early voting starts July 7.
The fate of the four other elected seats will be decided in November. While Henn and McMillion are running uncontested in Districts 5 and 7, Christina Pumphrey is running unopposed in District 6. And two candidates, Maggie Litz Domanowski and Diane Jean Young, will face off in the District 3 race in November. The student school board member was sworn in this month.
Johnny Olszewski Jr., the county executive, has endorsed six of the 15 candidates: Robin Harvey, Jane Lichter, Diane Young, Samay Singh Kindra, Henn and Pumphrey. Each candidates represent Districts 1 through 6. He did not, however, endorse McMillion, the only District 7 candidate.
The endorsement was done in collaboration with Teachers Association of Baltimore County and the Education Support Professionals of Baltimore County. Dan Chambers, a union organizer with the Maryland State Education Association that TABCO is part of, said McMillion wasn’t part of the teachers’ union endorsement because McMillion did not want to answer the organization’s questionnaire.
“Under our rules, anyone who doesn’t fill out the questionnaire cannot be considered by the membership for a recommendation,” he said in an email.
The school system had more than 111,000 students enrolled in fall 2021.
The three candidates vying for the District 1 seat are Robin Harvey, 51, the director of the Office of Licensing and Monitoring in the state Department of Human Services; Cory Koons, a 41-year-old laboratory director; and George Roycroft III, a teacher in Baltimore City Public Schools.
On topics such as race, diversity, equity and inclusion, both Roycroft and Harvey support discussion in the classroom. Roycroft said this can prevent the reoccurrence of past discrimination, while Harvey believes these issues will enrich the educational experience and that teachers can navigate the conversations responsibly.
Koons’ position, however, reflects a national trend among conservative candidates to support limiting certain topics in classrooms.
“I would rather save most of the political topics for a venue which is not the public school system,” he said.
He also opposes masks in public schools. When school systems were mandating masks as COVID-19 spreads and outbreaks were on the rise, Koons said he was against it because he believed the damage from the practice outweighed the benefits.
Roycroft said schools should listen to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and that masks prevent COVID-19 spread. Harvey also would defer to public health experts when deciding on mask wearing.
“It is akin to making seat belts optional or immunizations optional when the science and data show that they both keep us safe,” she said.
The board of education in Carroll County recently voted to prohibit the display of rainbow pride flags in its public schools. Roycroft said if pride flags caused a disruption, he would have done the same thing to prevent LGBTQ students from being targeted and bullied.
“Do you need your flag to be able to be who you are?” he asked.
Harvey said the decision should be based on policy. All beliefs should be respected but how people choose to express those beliefs is what’s important.
Koons, on the other hand, said allowing one “controversial banner” can open the door to controversies over other displays on school property. Only the county, state and federal flags should be allowed, he added.
Another hot-button issue that has been debated nationally is the teaching of sexual orientation and gender identity. Parents have argued those discussions should happen at home, while others say educators can be trusted to lead appropriate discussions.
Harvey said teacher autonomy and parental involvement can coexist. Parents should be part of the process when students are learning about these topics, she said, and the topic should be age-appropriate, something Roycroft agrees with. The subject can be introduced in middle school and expanded in 11th and 12th grade, Roycroft said.
Koons, however, said sexual orientation, gender identity or LGBTQ topics should not be discussed in the classroom, but rather talked about with a counselor with the permission of parents.
During a June 14 panel with the primary candidates hosted by the Baltimore County League of Women Voters and Randallstown NAACP, all three of the District 1 candidates ranked the recruitment and retention of qualified teachers as a top issue to tackle.
The three candidates running for the District 2 seat are Rebecca Chesner, 63, a retired Baltimore City schools psychologist; Jane Lichter, 59, a retired county schools educator; and LaShaune Stitt, who leads an education consulting company.
Chesner is concerned about a push to teach race and history in a way that’s polarizing, which is not healthy for children and could teach “victimhood.”
“Victimhood breeds anger, depression, blame and revenge while the beauty of teaching curriculums that focus on empowerment is that it teaches confidence, motivation and success,” Chesner said.
Lichter said she would uphold board policies that reflect a commitment to educational equity and says students should have materials that reflect the diversity of students and staff.
Stitt said she supports culturally responsive teaching, which promotes using a student’s customs and cultural background as tools for classroom instruction. She also supports optional mask wearing.
“I would lean more towards identifying the needs of each school community and then working as a collective to come up with a viable, respectful, and healthy solution,” she said.
Lichter would rely on the advice of medical professionals when making decisions on masks, while Chesner said mask mandates were inappropriate and unconstitutional.
Chesner also does not support rainbow pride flags in schools or any flags that symbolize special interest groups. Only the American flag should be displayed, she said.
Stitt didn’t say whether she was for or against the ban on rainbow pride flags. But she noted how students have been bullied for wearing Black Lives Matter shirts.
Lichter was strong in her views on the issue: she is against the ban. As for teaching about sexual orientation and gender identity, Lichter said she would follow a board policy that meets federal and state requirements.
“I would be ensuring that the curriculum is aligned to state health standards and that school environments are safe and accepting spaces for all students to thrive,” she said.
Stitt said it’s important to teach about all people, certain topics should be for certain age groups, and parents should have the opportunity to opt out of topics if they are concerned about their child being too young or if a subject infringes on their religious rights.
Chesner referred to the topics as “premature sexualization,” contending that discussion of them robs children of their innocence. Parents who think topics are best handled at home should be respected, she added.
Like the District 1 candidates, Lichter said teacher retention is one of the most important issues that needs to be addressed. New untenured teachers leave too soon, she added. Stitt stressed the need to improve building conditions, while Chesner said a top priority is improving the mental health of students.
Vying for the District 4 seat are J. Michael Collins, 72 (not to be confused with the former school board member Michael Collins); Samay Singh Kindra, a 24-year-old law student; Autrese Thornton, a 46-year-old supervising service coordinator; and Brenda Hatcher-Savoy, a lifelong educator. She did not respond to a questionnaire sent to her by The Banner.
Collins said the good, bad and ugly of American history should be taught in schools, but not critical race theory — an academic concept about systemic racism that is not taught in the public schools, but some fear will be.
Kindra said diversity, equity and inclusion should be part of the curriculum because students would benefit from their representation.
“I have seen and experienced firsthand the issues that arise when students are not accurately represented within the school curriculum,” he said.
These conversation are already happening in schools, Thornton said, and added that it is important for students to know about the uniqueness of other cultures.
Should COVID-19 return and outbreaks rise again, she said she would support enforcing a mask mandate. Kindra would also support mask-wearing if it were recommended by public health experts.
But Collins has an opposing view and said it should be up to the public. “I am not in favor of mandates dictating what people can or cannot do,” he said.
When it came to the banning of pride flags, Kindra said he was against Carroll County’s decision and that it was important to make every student feel represented and create a welcoming and inclusive environment. Collins said the only flag that should be flown on campus is the American flag.
“If the pride flags were displayed in the schools and classrooms to support the people who identify in that community, I would be OK with the flag being displayed in the school,” she said. “Because I don’t want children, teachers or members of that community to feel excluded.”
She would also support students learning about sexual orientation and gender identity in addition to what is already being taught about sexuality. It’s best if students learn about it from educators, she said, although she is not sure when it should be introduced. Kindra also would support teaching the topics, but said the board should consult experts on when to teach it.
Collins, however, said teaching the topic should start in middle school, if at all. He added that the topic belongs in the home and that it’s inappropriate to force the LGBTQ “agenda” on others.
The candidates also have other priorities they think the board needs to address. During the virtual forum, Kindra said student success after graduation is a major issue, while Thornton said student achievement should be a priority. In an email, Collins said basic education needs, like learning how to use a ruler, needs improvement. And Hatcher-Savoy listed the hiring of minority teachers.