7/19/22—Voters fill out their ballots inside Hazelwood Elementary/Middle School during Maryland’s primary election on Tuesday, July 19.

In Baltimore City’s first school board election, Ashley Esposito was leading the pack of eight candidates with early voting and the vast majority of election day precincts reporting results Tuesday night.

April Christina Curley and Kwame Kenyatta-Bey were in the top three, while Salimah Jasani and Michael Eugene Johnson were neck and neck for the fourth spot on the Nov. 8 general election ballot.

“I am shocked with the results. This is blowing my mind,” said Esposito, who had garnered over 14,600 votes as of Wednesday morning, more than 3,000 votes more than the next-highest vote-getter. “It looks like three of the top four are educators. It makes sense.” She said many of the top four candidates had been “authentic and open books. I feel like all four of us have led with our hearts.”

City voters on Tuesday went to the polls to narrow their choice of candidates for the Board of School Commissioners from eight to four. Tens of thousands of mail-in ballots remain to be counted, a process that will begin Thursday.

Barbara Morant, a Democrat and retired school teacher, took her first vote for school board seriously. After referring to the League of Women Voters election guide, she then called “a bunch of people who are former teachers or are still in the system to ask, ‘Who do we know?’”

Eight candidates are running for two elected positions on the 11-member 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 could vote in the school board contests.

Esposito got Morant’s vote on Tuesday at a polling place at Waverly Elementary School.

“I am excited that we have a little bit more local control,” Morant said, adding that she was excited to help select school board candidates for the first time.

“Some of the decisions that have been made for [the] Baltimore City School System have been made by the people who have no real physical connection to the system. They don’t know the people. They don’t know the children’s problems they brought to the school,” she said.

Carolyn Hruban, 27, voted for Curley and Jasani after researching each of the candidates. Hruban, a Johns Hopkins student, said she was looking for experience in education as well as for those who would do community outreach.

But voters at several polling places said they hadn’t cast ballots in the down-ballot school board race because they had never heard of any of the candidates. One person said she voted for random candidates. Others said they didn’t believe a vote for the school board would make a difference.

Signs for school board candidates were rare at several polling places around the city, with the exception of signs for Cortly “C.D.” Witherspoon. Democrat Kaliyah Burnett, 21, said she voted for Witherspoon, but hadn’t done a lot of research.

Ezekial Givens, 40, a Park Heights resident who was sitting outside Frederick Douglass High School in West Baltimore trying to convince voters to cast a ballot for incumbent Marilyn Mosby for Baltimore state’s attorney, wasn’t planning to vote in the school board race. City schools wouldn’t improve, he said, until wealthier people moved into neighborhoods and demanded better schools. “There are going to be good schools in Baltimore, it just won’t be schools for us,” he said, referring to young Black men.

School teacher Anthony O’Bannon had a somewhat similar take on the school board race and didn’t plan to vote in that contest, he said as he locked his bike to a rack in front of Waverly Elementary. The Democrat has been in the city for 15 years “and I have seen very little change,” he said. “I am glad they are having elections and it will make a more committed and engaged school board.” He wants to see more communities involved with their schools.

As she walked out of the voting center at Medfield Heights Elementary, Callan Silver, 38, said she voted for Witherspoon and Curley. She was looking for candidates who had school-aged children in the public schools.

”[Education] was the biggest thing, especially after these past few years of remote learning where it felt like parents in particular were asked to give, give, give and students were asked to give, give, give. ... I wanted to vote for people who were going to take parents seriously, especially with everything that happened.”

The Baltimore Teachers Union has endorsed Esposito and Jasani.

Esposito, 37, moved to the Violetville neighborhood in 2016 so that she could put her children in local public schools. The mother of a 2-year-old, Esposito said she will listen to community and student voices first. Jasani, 29, has worked in education as a teacher and now advises school districts on strategic planning. Her priorities include ensuring that a large increase in state and federal funding will be well-spent and working to keep teachers in their jobs. Teacher turnover is a significant local and national issue.

Other candidates running for the two positions include Karen Yosafat Beleck and Kevin Parson.

Curley, Kenyatta-Bey and Johnson have all taught or had other roles in the city public school system. Curley taught for two years at Vivien T. Thomas Medical Arts Academy, while Kenyatta-Bey has decades of teaching experience, a good portion of it at Patterson High School. Johnson worked in community outreach in a high school.

Reporter Aaron Wright contributed to this report.