Baltimore County school board contests reflect national divide over what can be discussed in the classroom

Published on: October 13, 2022 9:00 AM EDT

2022 Baltimore County Board of Education candidates are (Top, L to R) Rodney McMillion, Diane Jean Young, Rebecca Chesner, Samay Singh Kindra.  (Bottom, L to R) Cory Koons, Maggie Litz Domanowski, Robin Harvey and Julie Henn.  Not pictured are Jane Lichter, Brenda Hatcher-Savoy and Christina Pumphrey who did not rrespond to Banner request.
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With the Baltimore County school board facing a nearly complete makeover this fall, the Nov. 8 elections will go a long way toward determining whether the board continues on its current course or makes a sharp turn to the right.

There are four contested races on the fall ballot, while three candidates are running unopposed. Meanwhile, the terms of four appointed members on the 11-member board are expiring later this year; their replacements will be appointed by the next governor, likely in January.

The four contested races are playing out similarly to school board races across the country. While more conservative candidates oppose teaching about LGBTQ and other issues in the classroom and think parents should have a greater say about what’s taught, other candidates support classroom discussions about race and gender. The more conservative candidates also oppose mask requirements, though most districts are no longer requiring them as the threat from COVID-19 has lessened.

The field of candidates in the contested races includes six candidates who advanced from nonpartisan summer primaries in three districts and two candidates in District 3 who didn’t have primary challengers and will now square off.

The races pit Robin Harvey against Cory Koons in District 1; Rebecca Chesner against Jane Lichter in District 2; Maggie Litz Domanowski against Diane Jean Young in District 3; and Samay Singh Kindra against Brenda Hatcher-Savoy in District 4.

Running unopposed are Chair Julie Henn in District 5, vice chair Rod McMillion in District 7, and PTA council member Christina Pumphrey in District 6.

The Children 1st PAC, a conservative-leaning group, has endorsed Koons, Chesner, Domanowski and the unopposed incumbent Henn in District 5. The group’s chair plays down labels such as conservative.

“The candidates who are endorsed are parent- and student- focused,” said Kate Strauch Sullivan, the group’s chair, adding that they joined the race because of their children or grandchildren.

The four were also endorsed by the Republican Women of Baltimore County.

Meanwhile the Teachers Association of Baltimore County, the Education Support Professionals of Baltimore County and County Executive Johnny Olszewski Jr. are backing Harvey, Lichter, Young, Kindra, and the unopposed Henn and Pumphrey.

“Among this group you have former educators, principals, PTA leaders and advocates who share a passion for strengthening our schools in Baltimore County,” Olszewski, a Democrat, said during the endorsement announcement.

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The current board, which has had personality clashes spill out into the open in court hearings, has followed guidance requiring seven votes to approve many agenda items. The fall elections will help determine whether a working majority emerges as the board weighs questions such as the renewal of Superintendent Darryl Williams’ contract, which is up next year.

Early voting starts Oct. 27. Here is a look at the races:

District 1

Cory Koons said the focus of a school board member should not be politics, but student achievement and improving reading proficiency.

“I’m really proud of being a first-time candidate and not having a political party behind me,” the 41-year-old said after winning the primaries. The Republican was referring to Harvey’s endorsement by Olszewski, the county’s top Democrat. The races are nonpartisan.

Koons has staked out more conservative positions, referring to the rainbow-colored pride flag as a “controversial banner” that can lead to disputes over other displays on school property. And he said topics such as race, diversity, equity and inclusion are political and best left out of the classroom.

“I would rather save most of the political topics for a venue which is not the public school system,” the laboratory director said.

Robin Harvey, however, believes discussion of such issues will enrich the educational experiences of students and that teachers can navigate the conversations responsibly. She also said decisions on pride flags should be based on policy. All beliefs should be respected, she said, but how people choose to express those beliefs is what’s important.

Koons said he opposes masks being worn in public schools. Harvey said she’d defer to public health officials before making decisions on such questions.

“It is akin to making seat belts optional or immunizations optional when the science and data show that they both keep us safe,” said Harvey, 51.

As for teaching about sexual orientation and gender identity, Harvey, the director of the licensing and monitoring office in the state Department of Human Services, 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 topics should be age-appropriate.

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.

The candidates agree that recruitment and retention of qualified teachers should be a top priority.

District 2

This race pits Rebecca Chesner, 63, a retired Baltimore City schools psychologist, against Jane Lichter, 59, a retired county schools educator.

Chesner said during a recent interview and to The Baltimore Banner that curriculum should not teach “victimhood,” nor should it further divide students.

“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.

She also said the pandemic lockdowns and mandates were an injustice to students and that teaching about gender identity and sexuality is inappropriate. She referred to the topics as “premature sexualization,” and said parents who think such topics are best handled at home should be respected.

Lichter said she would uphold board policies that reflect a commitment to educational equity and provide students with materials that reflect the diversity of students and staff. She also said she would rely on the advice of medical professionals when making decisions on masks and would ensure that health curriculums align with state health standards.

Chesner does not support allowing pride flags, or any flags that she says symbolize special interest groups, in the schools. Only the American flag should be displayed, she said.

Lichter disagreed. As for teaching about sexual orientation and gender identity, Lichter said she would follow 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.

Lichter said teacher retention is one of the most important issues that needs to be addressed. Chesner said a top priority is improving the mental health of students.

District 3

District 3 voters have a clear choice between Diane Jean Young, a retired Baltimore County Public Schools employee, and Maggie Litz Domanowski, who has three children now enrolled in the system.

Domanowski wants to improve students’ academic performance. She said too many students are not performing at grade level and need to be evaluated more closely before they can move on to the next grade.

“It doesn’t help a student to pass them along when they don’t understand the grade level that they’re in,” said Domanowski, 43, an administrative assistant who lives in Baldwin.

She said other top priorities include school safety, curriculum transparency and keeping political divisions out of the classroom. She said the current school board wants “to be right more than they want to fix the problem.”

“Our kids are suffering,” she said. “We need to be adults and get along and put kids and their education first.”

Young, 76, said she wants students to be challenged in the classroom and receive the services they need.

“I do not believe Baltimore County Public Schools is perfect,” the retired Patterson High School teacher said. “There’s plenty of room for improvement. But I think we all need to work together because the goal is for the kids.”

Young, who spent 12 years in the Baltimore County schools and 14 years with the Baltimore City Public Schools, said she considers the teacher shortage to be the most pressing issue.

She also believes the system needs to be more responsive to parents, from strengthening the curriculum to accommodating the social and emotional needs of students. Young said the system should address the concerns identified by the 2021 operational efficiency report and make sure that funds from the Blueprint for Maryland’s Future, an education initiative that provides millions to school districts, benefit students.

“I’m not here to fight the system,” she said. “I’m here to improve it.”

Although school board races are nonpartisan, the candidates often reflect their party affiliation — Young is a Democrat, Domanowski a Republican.

During the summer, Domanowski spoke with TV Free Baltimore. In the interview, which is posted on her website, she said she would never vote for another mask mandate or school shutdown.

Young said that when it comes to public health concerns, she would heed the advice of healthcare professionals.

Domanowski said the race is supposed to be nonpartisan and that politics should not be involved.

“I’ve actually been attacked for my politics when all I want to do is take politics out of school,” she said on TV Free Baltimore.

District 4

The District 4 seat had four candidates in the primary election but is now down to Samay Singh Kindra, a 24-year-old law student who graduated from Baltimore County Public Schools, and Brenda Hatcher-Savoy, a lifelong educator.

Kindra said he was excited to make it to the general election and was glad to see that voters were receptive to his vision of having a 21st century education and helping students succeed after graduation.

He’s a believer in having diversity, equity and inclusion as part of the school curriculum and said it’s important to create a welcoming and inclusive environment.

“I have seen and experienced firsthand the issues that arise when students are not accurately represented within the school curriculum,” he said.

Kindra would support mask wearing and teaching about sexual orientation and gender identity if backed by experts.

According to Hatcher-Savoy’s Facebook profile, she’s a board member of Baltimore County Human Trafficking Work Group and a former school administrator at Baltimore City Public Schools. It also says she was on the campaign trail with the Baltimore County Progressive Democrats Club last month.

Hatcher-Savoy did not respond to requests for comment from The Banner.

In a July forum, she pointed out the need for safe and supportive environments for students, hiring teachers of color, implementing inclusive curriculums and engaging with the community.

She noted in a 2018 video for an unsuccessful Maryland Democratic Central Committee bid that she had been a county resident for more than four decades and had a “vested interest in improving the quality of our schools.”