Information technology analyst Ashley E. Esposito and veteran educator Kwame Kenyatta-Bey were poised late Tuesday to win Baltimore’s first-ever election for seats on the city’s school board.

With nearly all precincts reporting late Tuesday, Esposito had nearly 29% of the vote and Kenyatta-Bey had more than 27%. Trailing were former teacher April Christina Curley, who received nearly 23%, and Salimah Jasani, who garnered about 20 percent.

The Baltimore Teachers Union had endorsed Esposito, the mother of a toddler and the top vote-getter in the July primary, and Jasani, a former city schools special education teacher who now works for an educational consulting company. They ran as a ticket.

While Esposito appeared to prevail, the 68-year-old Kenyatta-Bey, who had finished third in the July 19 primary, edged into second place this time. Late Tuesday night, Jasani said candidates would wait to count the remainder of the outstanding mail-in ballots before declaring victory or conceding losses.

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Wednesday afternoon, Kenyatta-Bey said he felt confident about maintaining his second-place lead and looked forward to rolling up his sleeves: “Now, it’s time to run the bases. We’ve got to get to work here.”

While other regional school board races sparked fiery, public debates about opponents’ extremist views, the contests for the city’s Board of School Commissioners were far less contentious, with candidates at times even trading jokes over how well each contender would fit in the role.

The four candidates Tuesday had advanced from a field of eight candidates in the July 19 primary. The two winners will join what will be a 12-person board.

The campaigns for the two open seats represented a departure from how the city historically has set up its school board; previously, all 10 candidates were appointed by the mayor. State lawmakers in 2016 passed a law that expanded the size of the board by adding two seats to be filled by voters. Until then, Baltimore had been the only jurisdiction with unelected school board members.

School board races — historically nonpartisan in nature and often absent from pre-Election Day polling — have grown increasingly polarized over the last several years, reflecting national trends and culture wars. Parents across the country, particularly in right-leaning jurisdictions, have demanded more control over children’s access to teachings about race and ethnicity, gender and sexuality. Meanwhile, guardians and caregivers in left-leaning areas have pushed educators and school administrators to leave such decisions to educators. They’ve also backed more stringent COVID-19 precautionary policies, such as indoor masking and vaccinations.

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Esposito, a resident of the city’s Violetville neighborhood, vowed to better represent more parents and families in the school board’s choices. She told The Baltimore Banner that she would prioritize ending school building closures, which she said can destabilize communities. City officials have shuttered several facilities in recent years amid Baltimore’s population loss.

Outside Beechfield Elementary Middle School in West Baltimore Tuesday afternoon, Esposito told The Banner that the canvassing doesn’t stop on Election Day. She said she hopes to rally a broad coalition of families from across the city’s neighborhoods toward a goal of lifting up each city school to similar standards.

“Until we get to a place where there is no ‘bad’ school, we’re not doing well,” said Esposito. “In our area, we don’t have a high school that has the same resources as schools all the way on the other side of town. I’ve seen so many parents pull their kids out of the system, if their kid did not fare well in the school choice process.”

Esposito’s upbringing in a family of limited means and in the foster care system informed her understanding of how schools should wrap around kids to provide social services they may not find elsewhere, she said. Her experiences with learning disabilities and with neurodivergence also can help the school board become more sensitive and receptive to students with complex needs, she added.

Both Jasani and Esposito had applied for school board seats through the city’s appointment process and were rejected, they said, compelling them to run for elected seats.

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Kenyatta-Bey who teaches history, has spent decades as an educator, many of them at Patterson High School. There he works as an instructor for students who use English as a second language. A grandparent and parent of Baltimore City schools alumni, he has advocated for more arts education in the curriculum.

“I have a theory that one of the main problems we have in schools in Baltimore City and throughout is: we have allowed industry, politics and a whole lot of interests to take our education system away from the community to which it belongs,” he said Tuesday morning, on his way to a polling location in Ashburton. “The education system only exists because of the community, but we seem to have forgotten the community’s needs.”

Kenyatta-Bey said all four candidates shared a commitment to improving the school system and unifying teachers, students and parents along a common thread. When asked about his expectations for Tuesday’s race, he replied, “Victory will be declared when our students prosper.”

The Board of School Commissioners acts as a check on the powers of Baltimore’s public schools, which serve some 80,000 students every year. The board includes one student commissioner who serves a one-year term and nine adults who serve three-year terms.

Both Jasani and Curley had said they would support the winners in Tuesday’s contest. Jasani campaigned on using her expertise in disability justice and as a U.S. immigrant. Curley, a former teacher and recruiter at Teach for America and Google, proposed eliminating police officers from school buildings and adding more mental health services.

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hallie.miller@thebaltimorebanner.com

Hallie Miller is a reporter at The Baltimore Banner, where she hopes to dive deep into the city's communities and highlight solutions. She is passionate about engaging readers and using new tools to tell stories. Hallie spent four years at The Baltimore Sun, where she helped lead the organization's medical coverage of the coronavirus pandemic. 

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