As Election Day nears, the races for Baltimore County school board are heating up, with ads and endorsements highlighting the political divide in what are officially nonpartisan contests.

School board elections have long been races that some voters rarely think about until they enter the polling place, but this year in Baltimore County, Democrats are making a last-minute pitch urging voters to beware of candidates they believe hold extreme views.

On the other side, some Republican elected officials are lending their support to candidates voicing conservative views on the teaching of race and gender. The endorsements elevate the school board races, which are some of the only general election contests where there is little polling and the outcomes are less clear. This year’s contests may well determine the future direction of the county’s schools, as nearly all the seats on the board will turn over, creating a new board in December that will determine whether to keep Superintendent Darryl Williams when his contract expires in June.

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. Early voting has started and Election Day is Nov. 8.

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Among the conservative contenders, none has drawn as much attention as Maggie Litz Domanowski, a mother of three children now enrolled in county schools whose past social media comments have come under scrutiny. She is running in council District 3 against retired educator Diane Jean Young.

Former state Sen. Jim Brochin recently endorsed Young, citing her experience as an educator and her volunteer work as a court appointed special advocate in Baltimore County. He also accused Domanowski of backing Republican gubernatorial nominee Dan Cox, who claimed falsely that the 2020 election was stolen from former President Donald Trump. Anyone who aligns with Cox “is a nonstarter and should not be part of any part of leadership,” Brochin said.

Domanowski did not answer a question from The Banner about whether she supports Cox, but did say she will work with and support whoever becomes the next governor.

As a senator, Brochin passed a bill that allowed board members to be elected instead of exclusively appointed. He described himself as a “very conservative Democrat” who voted with Republicans 40% of the time in the state Senate. He said Young’s more than two decades working in the Baltimore City and county school systems make her particularly qualified to serve on the board.

Domanowski has been endorsed by two Republican County Council members seeking reelection, Wade Kach and David Marks; state Del. Kathy Szeliga, who represents Baltimore and Harford counties; and U.S. Rep. Andy Harris, a social conservative who represents Maryland’s 1st District and is running for a seventh term.

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Harris said in a message through a spokesman that county and state politicians caused a learning loss when they refused to reopen schools in the early stages of the pandemic, when officials were desperately trying to prevent the spread of COVID-19. The virus has claimed the lives of 15,265 Marylanders, according to the state Department of Health website.

“Now, they seem more focused on sexualizing children and shoving other woke nonsense down their throats, rather than finding solutions to the serious problem they created,” he said. “I fully support Maggie Domanowski because she will prioritize the interests and education of students and their parents, the taxpayers, rather than the demands of the county’s unionized public workforce.”

Marylanders for Freedom and Opportunity, a left-leaning political action committee, is also taking aim at Domanowski.

The PAC’s goal, according to member Travis Tazelaar, is to warn people about extreme candidates around the state. It has also put out digital ads that support Young and fellow school board candidate Jane Lichter, who is running in District 2.

“Our teachers put our kids’ education first,” the ad states. “So we need leaders who will fight against attempts to censor them and focus on what matters, like hiring more teachers and increasing their pay.”

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Tazelaar said the average voter is not aware of who exactly these candidates are. He said some are “focused on national political issues and politicizing local school systems.” The PAC is primarily funded by the Maryland State Education Association.

In a press release, he links to a page that calls Domanowski “wrong for Baltimore County Schools.” Screenshots from Domanowski’s social media accounts were pasted below. One image is of a tweet that asks, “Did you guys take a few minutes yesterday to honor the memory of George Floyd as Barack Obama requested?”

In response, Domanowski wrote, “Who.”

Domanowski told The Banner she didn’t think she meant anything by the tweet. “Maybe I thought I responded to something else,” she added.

On the same Twitter account, she tweeted, “if you need to tell me your preferred pronouns, I’ve probably stopped listening,” according to screenshots on the webpage.

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The District 3 candidate said she was attacked on Twitter by people who called her racist, homophobic and a climate change denier. So she got off the social media platform. The account has no picture or followers and is following one person, President Joe Biden.

“I just find it interesting,” she said. “I’ve kept my campaign as positive as possible.”

She said she entered the race as a parent who wants to protect children. She isn’t going in with her own ideas on how to solve problems, but as someone who will work with, and listen to, other board members to find solutions.

She has also said that she’s been attacked for her politics when all she wants to do is keep politics out of the classroom.

Marylanders for Freedom and Opportunity also warned against Rebecca Chesner, a retired Baltimore City schools psychologist running in District 2 against Lichter, a retired county schools educator.

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The PAC’s webpage states, “Chesner staunchly believes that only an American flag should be allowed in classrooms. ‘Period.’ This would prohibit kids from bringing or showing support with pride flags, or any other kind of flag.”

It also states that Chesner believes the county’s curriculum “teaches victimhood and the sexualization of children” and that she believes schools “have to get back to teaching love of God and country.”

She made similar comments in interviews with The Banner.

Lichter told The Banner in a recent interview: “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.”'

The four contested races are playing out similarly to school board contests across the country, where more conservative candidates are mounting campaigns based on opposition to things like critical race theory, an academic concept that focuses on systemic racism in institutions and is not a fixture of K-12 education.

The other contested races pit Robin Harvey, a social worker, against Cory Koons, a laboratory director, in District 1, and law student Samay Singh Kindra against career educator 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.

Koons, Chesner, Domanowski and Henn have the backing of the Children 1st PAC, a conservative-leaning group, as well as the Republican Women of Baltimore County.

Harvey, Lichter, Young, Kindra and the unopposed Henn and Pumphrey have the support of the Teachers Association of Baltimore County, the Education Support Professionals of Baltimore County and County Executive Johnny Olszewski Jr., a Democrat.

During the primaries, few voters knew about the school board candidates. Brochin said the races need to be publicized more.

“We have our work cut out for us,” he said.

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