Sunday, May 11, 2014

The Treachery of Forums

Ceci n’est pas une recapitulation.

One experiences a certain exhilaration driving 75 mph on icy Michigan highways during a relentless January evening snowstorm.  Semis, operated by road-weary professionals who believe they are the living Bob Seger’s “Turn the Page,” merge and careen across the lanes.  It is no place for a vintage Mercury Lynx with a couple of near-balding tires, but you white-knuckle it out, teeth gritting past every mile marker.  Wide-eyed, artery-clearing terror intermingles with the mechanical no-thought of skillful driving and the warmth of hope as the promise of home and hearth draws nearer.  Just need to work the physics…avoid the spinout.

I kept thinking back to that drive, the Kalamazoo-to-East Lansing trip from early ’95, as I was watching the League of Women Voters of Howard County – Board of Education Candidate Forum(s).  I have a feeling some of the candidates were in a similar place, mentally, as they sat there fielding questions from the moderators.  No one ended up in a ditch, but it was only one short stretch of the journey.  Several turned in good performances, but for some of them, if you take a hard look at their qualifications or past experience or general philosophy, the shine comes off rather quickly.

I tried to hack through the Gordian Knot and choose a final four, but that task will require more reflection, more time.  That said, I can winnow the field down to a top nine contenders.  Here are some impressionistic profiles of the seven Best-of-the-Best, the two Borderline who could move up (or down), and the four Others:

Top Seven (in alphabetical order, because I know you will ask):

Bess Altwerger: The Educator’s Educator.  Highly knowledgeable. Common Core skeptic. Recurring themes: well-rounded, individualized curricula & developing critical thinking. Positioned herself as an advocate for teachers and students (a plus in my book although others might view that differently).

Zaneb Beams:  Holistic perspective on child advocacy.  Brainy and a clear communicator. Recurring themes: Finding solutions, open communications, equity.  Showed some real passion during a discussion on technology usage (“every child should have it...” but made her opinion clear that advanced technology utilization is not an educational end-all/be-all).

Olga Butler:  Practical experience. History of involvement in the schools.  Recurring themes: building relationships, partnerships.  One of the highlights of the forum was her answer to a question asking about the biggest weakness of the system.  Her response was: “The Board.”  Regardless of your thoughts on that issue, you have to admire the honesty of the reply.   

Maureen Evans Arthurs: Good policy background. Recurring themes: collaboration, representing the will of the community. I think her “new voice” positioning is a bit risky, inasmuch as it highlights her relative inexperience.  Her best moment was a rebuttal of Mr. Dyer’s statement regarding technology, when she worked in a fitting reference to Oregon Trail. 

Sandra French:  Knowledgeable incumbent.  Frankly, I would like to see both incumbents seeking re-election on the November ballot if only for the largest possible electorate to have the opportunity to use the General Election as a referendum on the job performance of the incumbents…and the direction of the Board as a whole.  Offered up a weaker response on the technology question.  Support zero-based budgeting.   Favors giving the Board of Education some measure of funding authority.

Dan Furman:  Legal expertise.   Gets the importance of the budget as a policymaking/shaping tool. Recurring themes: proactive problem solving, relevant experience, knowledge of the budget.  Opposed to zero-based budgeting.  I can’t decide if he would be outstanding or merely OK, which is why I would like to see him emerge as one of the top eight vote getters in June. 

Cindy Vaillancourt: Energetic incumbent.  Would like for her to be on the November ballot for the reasons I articulated earlier regarding French.  Provided some thoughtful answers regarding system weaknesses (“too much focus on test scores”) and the importance of an educational system that equips students to travel down one of any number of potential life paths. 

The Borderline (also in alphabetical order):

Leslie Kornreich:  STEM.  Perhaps it is a question of presentation, but not much stood out about her performance at the forum, one way or the other.  She is concerned about the implementation of Common Core…and she adopted the most pro-STEM stance among the candidates.  Qualified for the Board of Education? Sure. But I haven’t heard a compelling vision for her candidacy yet.      

Christine O’Connor:  Teacher/education activist. Was caught up on the wrong side of a flood and was unable to attend the forum.  I have heard good things about her and would like to see more from her in the coming weeks. As of this writing, she is in the 8th position.

The Others (also in alphabetical order):

Corey Andrews:  This may be unfair on my part, but I tend to prefer candidates with a bit more life experience.  An amazing presentation might have convinced me that Mr. Andrews was a top-tier candidate…but I didn’t see anything that demonstrated a remarkable depth of knowledge.  He has a future in something…but I don’t know what that “something” is.  I don’t think he would be a good fit, at this time, on the Howard County Board of Education.

Tom Baek: I don’t believe he possesses a great handle on some of the specific opportunities and challenges involved with the Howard County Public School System.  He has an interesting and deliberative communications style that might lead to a better, calmer, more functional group dynamic at the Board-level but he simply doesn’t have the education background that other candidates have.

Allen Dyer: A couple of good moments during the forum but I would direct anyone to review the extensive public record on Mr. Dyer.  Draw your own conclusions.

Mike Smith:  While he spoke extensively during the forum…I didn’t hear much beyond broad generalities and some life experiences overseas that may, or may not, be applicable to the responsibilities he would face as member of the Howard County Board of Education.  I don't think he is particularly well-versed on HCPSS issues.  

Will I do a final four before Primary Day?  Probably.

Stay tuned, as more will follow.


  1. Bless you! #HoCoBoE #HoCoSchools #HoCoVotes

  2. For the candidates reading this post, help yourself to this knowledge -

    And for anyone in the #HoCoSchools world, help yourself to this -