Tuesday, September 30, 2014

Parent Empowerment - Education in HoCo

Almost didn’t make the Parent Empowerment Education Forum, presented by the African American Community Roundtable of Howard County and the Howard County Public School System (HCPSS) last night.  A light-hearted dramedy of minor miscues transpired shortly before our planned departure; but everything was handled and we arrived at Wilde Lake High School at 7:00 pm.

It was clearly The Event in HoCo last night.  The Jim Rouse Theatre was packed to capacity…with several attendees sans chairs standing about in the back or side of the auditorium.  In addition to the concerned parents, there were a number of community leaders, elected (and appointed) officials, educators, students and candidates present.

The long and short of the forum was a focus on promoting parental engagement in the learning process.  Specifically, the gathering centered on strategies and programs designed to help parents help their children excel in their primary and secondary education.

Candace Dodson Reed led off the event with the welcoming and introductory remarks.  She did her usual excellent job.  The order of the proceedings once established, it was time for Dr. Foose, the HCPSS Superintendent, to make her presentation.

Dr. Foose’s speech could best be described as Progress.  She covered some of the technological and cultural steps taken to enhance the learning environment in Howard County public schools (“family programs, parent advocates, daily routines, community involvement”).  She also presented some data points illustrating advancements made in graduation rates, test scores and other diagnostic measures among African-American students in the HCPSS within the past couple of years.

Next up was Albert Corvah, recent HCPSS grad and now Harvard University student.  His remarks could best be entitled The Promise.  He related his personal narrative (successes, challenges, motivating factors) and gave abundant credit to his parents for helping him excel academically.  I concur with Mr. Corvah that I wish there were more students present at the Forum last night; he definitely had a message that could have resonated with middle and high school students.  Perhaps his taped speech could be shown in classes throughout the County. 

After a solid introduction by Robin Jean Baptiste (WLHS student), Dr. Freeman Hrabowski (President, UMBC) got up and delivered what we call a good, old-fashioned stem-winder.  Now, you usually get a heavy dose of erudition when university presidents speak, but…as a general rule…many long-time academicians can be a little dry.  Fortunately, Dr. Hrabowski’s speech was both informative and engaging.  His presentation could be referred to as The Vision. He weaved a storyline that included elements from his childhood as well as his experiences as an educator and college president and delivered practical (yet academically grounded) counsel on parental involvement strategies.

I missed the introduction of the next speaker, but I believe the final remarks (aka “So Here Are the Next Steps") were delivered by the Reverend Dr. Robert Turner (Senior Pastor, St. John Baptist Church).  His presentation could best be summarized as The Program.  He talked about some of the concrete programmatic efforts that are underway, including the Parent Academy that… as I recall… will be launched in the Spring of 2015.  I assume the African American Community Roundtable of Howard County (this organization can be found on Facebook) will be providing additional information on this and similar initiatives in the near future.

Overall, from my vantage point, I believe the event was a smashing success.  There was an aura of enthusiasm in the room, a palpable sense that these efforts can Make a Difference.  It is clear, from the questionnaires distributed to the audience members (note: I didn’t see the survey instrument myself) that the Roundtable wants to foster an ongoing dialogue with parents and other community stakeholders to explore and assess needs, wants, concerns, expectations, etc…  That is an excellent process to have in place and I hope there are ample opportunities and milieus for an open, thoughtful and evolving education conversation in the days, weeks and months ahead.

On a personal note, I am just elated to write about something beyond Campaign 2014.  A candidate for BoE could have walked up to me last night and said they were going to launch an investigation into the disappearance of Atlantis and I wouldn’t have posted about it…at least not right away.  But if you are seeking public office and you would like to share your thoughts on UFOs, chemtrails, fluoride, the Hollow Earth hypothesis or any similar topics, please drop me a line. 

Stay tuned, as more will follow. 

Friday, September 26, 2014

"There's talk on the street; it sounds so familiar..."

One of the many, many reasons why I opted against running in HD 12 was because I believed, correctly, that I was too new to Howard County.  Having moved here in early 2011, how could I represent the people when I was not of the community?

It has been attempted before, of course.  One example leaps to mind. Back in 1992, a businessman from New York named Sandy Pensler parachuted into Michigan to run for a congressional seat. He was loaded but had little to no connection to the district.  So he cuts a TV ad, produced by a well-respected GOP media operative, showing him jogging around Lansing in a Michigan State University sweatshirt. Go Green.

The response ad by his opponent, who won the primary, was simple and devastating.  It featured a black and white, slow-motion clip of the original spot, with a voiceover that intoned, “Nice sweatshirt, Sandy.  Is it new?” The carpetbagger stigma stuck and Mr. Pensler never recovered.  I heard the U-Haul was back at his apartment before the vote was certified.

Which brings me to the candidacy of one Kevin Forrest Schmidt.

Now, as a Democrat and friend of Jon Weinstein, I am not a disinterested party.  There are several reasons why I would cast my ballot for Jon, if I resided in the First District.  Among them is his long history of community involvement.   Compare that with Mr. Schmidt, who apparently moved to Ellicott City in the 2008 – 2009 time-frame and whose record of HoCo civic engagement appears far less extensive.
It is wonderful that most Howard County residents have a welcoming attitude toward newcomers.  That said, it is another matter entirely to elect such individuals to public office.

I am not saying that it can’t or shouldn’t be done, but, fair or not, questions are raised.  How well does this person really know Howard County?  How well do his or her potential constituents know this person?  How can this individual effectively serve the district?  Do they understand the values and interests of their new neighbors? Are they running because they see an opportunity or because they truly want to serve and accomplish something…and even if the latter is the case, why now?  Why not wait until their roots stretch deeper?  

Just a few thoughts going into the homestretch.

Stay tuned, as more will follow.

Thursday, September 25, 2014

Prophylactic Measures

Knowing only what has been reported in the traditional media, I am in no position to say who, if anyone, is right or wrong in this emerging controversy.
This blog deals with politics and perceptions, in case you haven’t noticed. So viewing the matter from such a brutal and cynical perspective, here is what comes to mind:

1.  This isn’t a one or two day story. The Vaillancourt campaign is going to have to contend with some truly bad headlines between now and Election Day.  Stating that you are going to review legal options is just one step; there needs to be a broader and cohesive communications strategy. Even for a non-partisan, down-ballot race such as this, she is going to need to formulate and articulate a simple narrative regarding her comments and actions that makes sense to the average voter.  If she can’t, there is a pathway to a fifth place finish. 

2. Regarding those who voted in favor of the Resolution of Disappointment, the optics appear a little bit sketchy.  Again, I am not going to get into the merits of the Board’s moves.  I just know that some find it interesting that the Board reprimanded Vaillancourt roughly 45 days prior to the primary election (regarding “breaching the confidentiality of closed sessions”) and now 40 days before the general election on this new matter.  Yes, issues come up when they arise.  I am not saying that the other Board members are engaging in any shenanigans, but – based on the timing alone - they are providing grist for the mill for those who believe that their actions are, at least in part, politically motivated.  

3. I have a different perspective than my friend, the Sage of Oakland Mills, MM who argues that Ms. Vaillancourt should take the sensitivity training.    

From a realpolitik view, if she agreed to do so (between now and Election Day), it would appear to be an admission that she crossed a line with her comments. A very risky move.

I concur with the implications of the comment made by Long Reach’s answer to Alan Dershowitz in the aforementioned blog post:  that all Board Members “should have sexual harassment training annually.”   Perhaps the Board can agree to review relevant policies and procedures; of course I am guessing that this might have to wait until after November 4.

Coming soon: another post about timing.  And this one has nothing to do with the Board of Education!

Stay tuned, as more will follow.

Saturday, September 20, 2014

Fun With Acronyms - Take II

Thoughts on the Howard County Board of Education field. 

[video link deleted].

Author's note (9/21/14): Yes, I set the original video to private.  I didn't like how it turned out, primarily due to the length (and even with a long video, I was unable to cover such pressing issues as the optimal oversight role of an elected Board of Education, working successfully with other government agencies on matters such as housing, etc...).

So allow me to summarize some key takeaways:

1) From A to B: As of this writing, I plan on voting for Altwerger and Beams. I believe both are accomplished individuals who are subject matter experts in their respective fields. They can help elevate the discourse. Most importantly, they seem to be running for the right reasons: helping our students and making our already solid school system even better.

2) Of the eight candidates, I believe seven are actually qualified to serve on the Board of Education (all but Smith).

3) Of the eight, I believe six are qualified, have the proper temperament, and the ability to work productively and collaboratively for a four-year term of office (all but Smith and Dyer).

4) I believe it is highly likely that both French and Vaillancourt will be re-elected (80%+ likelihood for each placing in the top four).

5) I strongly recommend that anyone interested in the Howard County Board of Education race read through the following document.  There is some gold in here.  Very insightful information on each of the candidates, in their own words:


Stay tuned, as more will follow.


Thursday, September 18, 2014

Tear the Roof Off the Sucker

On certain days, one wonders about the advantages of an elected versus an appointed school board.  Sometimes, one ponders the benefits of humans as compared to animatronic platypuses as board members.  The Multi-Village Sponsored Howard County Board of Education Event (Cluster-Forum for short) invited all sorts of odd musings.

Was the forum, held at The Other Barn in Oakland Mills, informative? Absolutely. Was the audience packed with local luminaries, community activists, thought leaders, public officials, educators, parents, students, looky-loos and hangers-on? Definitely.  Was it a draining and slightly disheartening experience?  Unfortunately, yes.

Rather than craft a novella, I will explore some of the highlights:

The candidates were unafraid to engage in comparative politicking.  In their introductory statements, which included a verbal response to one of five questions for which they also provided written answers, Bess Altwerger talked about the high quality of teachers found in schools across the county (a rejoinder to Allen Dyer’s perspective, articulated in earlier forums, that the best schools were…essentially… hoarding the best teachers).  Mike Smith stated that there were some “misrepresentations” regarding Common Core, which he supports.  I don’t know if he mentioned Altwerger by name, but his comments were clearly directed at her. 

Author’s note: Mike Smith also said that, under certain circumstances, having 35 students in a classroom is “OK.” Then again, he did admit to being “mathematically challenged.” So perhaps he doesn’t grasp the absurdity of his position.

Dr. Zaneb Beams probably had the best night.  She received applause, twice, during her introductory remarks.  She offered up a seemingly heart-felt request that we think of students as people (I believe the sentence was: “We don’t have FARMS students, we have students who are receiving help with food.”)  Many in the audience also reacted favorably to her belief that “Scores don’t make us great, dreams (and doing?) make us great.”  Call me a cynical jerk who has been in and around politics too long, but I thought the second line was a bit schmaltzy.   

Tension in the room.  There were accusations expressed by some audience members that certain candidates were expressing opinions that were not aligned with the facts on the ground.  There was a vividly worded query about the best way to “stop the bloodbath at the central office” that evoked some emotional responses from multiple candidates.   There were concerns articulated about the role that developers play in our political process.  There was an excellent question about the idiots (author’s note: my characterization) at Glenelg High School who were sporting a Confederate flag; some on the stage handled this topic better than others.

Democracy can be messy and the School Board is not meant to be a gathering of best friends.  I get those realities.  Nonetheless, the present dynamic appears rather corrosive.  Passions seem to be running high and the current mix of personalities, with their differing perspectives, histories and talents seem to be intruding upon the Board’s ability to set “local education policy consistent with state and federal laws governing public education.” (this one-sentence summary of the Board’s job description can be found at http://www.hcpss.org/board/). 

Who, if anyone, is to blame?  I am certain there are a variety of answers to that question.  That is not the point of this post.  My intention is to move the dialogue forward and ask, given where we are and given the pressing issues facing HCPSS, which four candidates, if elected, will do the most to help improve our schools?

With that in mind, I am likely to state my preference(s), for whatever that information is worth, next week.
Stay tuned, as more will follow.

Friday, September 12, 2014

Sunny Side Musings - Part Three

Slats needed to get to Lansing for what he described as an “urgent assignment.”  I didn’t inquire further.  Before he departed, we met at Frank’s Diner in Jessup.

“So why are you writing about the forum?  Is there any money in it?” he asked, perusing the menu.

“Not a dime. I am just trying to sort out how I want to vote,” I paused, “Oh, the sausage here comes in links, not patties, in case you were wondering,” I replied.

“Seriously?  So really I need to decide between bacon and corned beef hash, is that the deal?”


“Well,’ he shrugged, “it might not be ideal, but those are some decent options.”

With that, he pulled out his phone to check his email.  I shifted my attention to my coffee and the notes I took.   Here are the final audience questions and responses from the Columbia Democratic Club’s Board of Education forum and my thoughts:

Audience Question Four:  How would you prioritize resources?

French: We need more feedback on this.  I lean more towards human resources.  Relayed the anecdote involving the teacher who wore a sign saying, “I am your best app.”

Furman:  The key consideration is, “What is in the best interest of the students?”  We need a balanced approach.

O’Connor: We need effective teacher development.

Vaillancourt: Apocalypse-scenario.  If all of the buildings were gone, teachers would be left, so it is about the teachers.

Altwerger:  Equity across the schools.  More school psychologists and counselors.  Keeping the facilities equitable.  Hiring and maintaining the best teachers, increasing their time for preparation.  Ten days on testing is ridiculous, money could be spent elsewhere, such as on arts and music.

Dyer:  Proper direction of the resources that we have.  Teachers should be where they are most needed.  I raised this issue before and was ignored for four years.  FARMS kids could have more experienced teachers, we need to move them around.  Start high school classes later.    

Spartan Considerations thoughts: I thought the incumbents delivered the best replies to this question, strictly in terms of connecting on a visceral level with the audience.  As usual, Altwerger gave a detailed, thoughtful answer (more head than heart).  Furman suggested a reasonable test and appeared to be focused on reaching a consensus, which may give voters an idea of the type of Board Member he might be, if elected. 

Audience Question Five:  What resources could you use to work together as a board

Spartan Considerations translation:  “So how can the new Board learn to act like adults and drop all of the public acrimony?”

Furman:  There has been contention for years.  We need to be in a position to work together.  Create “personal connections.”  There is no one workshop or program that will resolve these relationship issues.

O’Connor: “My personality.”  (Spartan Considerations chess notation: !?!).  I am a good listener. I take time to make decisions.  I work things through.

Vaillancourt: I would not define disagreement as contention.  The “Golden Rule” is missing.  We need to be respectful of each other.

Altwerger:  Respect.  Civility.  It should not be a matter of personalities.  The recent HCEA – Board contention led to a lot of “bad press that tarnished the system.”

Dyer: I believe in the “cacophony of democracy.”  Things can’t be done behind closed doors.  Open decisions, openly arrived at….this is part of having an elected Board of Education.  We worked to get this.

French: “Shock of shocks.  I agree with Allen Dyer.”  This is part of the rough and tumble of politics.  “No one Board Member has authority.” We deliberate in public.  We need to accept decisions that are made. Some people need to “let things go.”

Spartan Considerations thoughts:  Although the question was focused on the heavy matter of the seemingly sometimes dysfunctional working relationship involving multiple current Board members, this query led to one of the lighter moments of the evening. The French reply generated genuine laughter.  Of course her admonition that some needed to “let things go” was clearly directed at a fellow Board Member, which ramped up the tension in the room a little bit.

Dyer, channeling his inner Woodrow Wilson, delivered a thoughtful response.  In my estimation, O’Connor gave the riskiest reply, but it seemed consistent with her plain- spoken persona.   

Audience Question Six:  If the school day started later, won’t kids just stay up later at night? 

Spartan Considerations note:  With time running out, we entered the “rapid-fire” round at this point.  Candidates gave short answers, if at all, for the rest of the questions.

Dyer:  The science bears out that later starting times are better.

Altwerger:  Spoke about Circadian Rhythms of teenagers and that some kids are “more likely” to get in trouble in the early afternoons, in the window of time after they are currently let out of school.

O’Connor: We need to see more studies on this subject.  Wondered about the impact on the sports schedule.

Furman:  Said he raised the question of pushing the school day to a later start time back in 2002.  Believes that kids will go to bed at a “reasonable time.”

Spartan Considerations thoughts:  On a personal note, I had to chuckle at Altwerger’s response.  I was working on a presidential campaign back in ’99 and we focused on that early-to-mid afternoon timeframe as a potential danger zone, when teenagers were out of school but before their parent(s) came home from work.  Fifteen years later and society is still grappling with the same fundamental question.

Audience Question Seven:  By a show of hands, do you have any guns in your home?

Spartan Considerations thoughts:  I am not going to record the candidate’s responses here.  I thought the question was inappropriate for this forum.  It merely served to remind me that it would be challenging for Slats to be a candidate for public office.  His first instinct would be to invite the individual to knock on his door at an early hour of the morning so they could find out, up close and personal, if he owned any firearms. I commend the candidates for exercising the appropriate level of restraint on that question.

Audience Question Eight:  Common Core is state law, so how would you fix it (if at all)?

Spartan Considerations notes:  This was a great question because it compelled skeptics and advocates alike to recognize the world, as it is, and address the question based on the political and legal realities of the situation and not treat Common Core as an abstract concept.

Furman:  More funds should be spent on professional development.

O’Connor:  Spoke about the need for greater interaction, education between the PTAs and parents (French liked this idea).

Dyer: Students can’t be treated differently if their parents opt them out of high-stakes testing.

French:  When I hear a concern, I go to the Superintendent.  They are often “six months to one year” ahead in their thinking.  They [those in the HCPSS administrative offices] are professionals, they have a plan. Also, parents of 3rd graders, all they know is Common Core.  The ones who are skeptical tend to be older parents.

Altwerger:  I have conducted a great deal of research on Common Core.  It was not field-tested.  It is not scientifically-based.  Gave an example regarding phonemes.

Vaillancourt:  We need to be honest about resources.  Talked about curricula, lesson planning.

Spartan Considerations thoughts:

French positioned herself as the Defender of the Current Regime on this question.  In terms of subject matter expertise, Altwerger again emerged as the candidate who articulated the most detailed reply.

Overall Forum Implications:

Of the eight candidates, I am still pondering which will receive my vote. I have ruled out two, leaving six as “possibles.” I hope to settle this question soon, preferably before Slats winds his way back to the Mid-Atlantic.  He doesn’t like to be in the States for more than a couple weeks at a time, so I imagine he will be back in our neck of the woods soon enough.

Stay tuned, as more will follow.

Thursday, September 11, 2014

Moderately Spicy Wisdom - Part Two

I tracked Slats down around noon today.  He huffed that I shouldn’t have interrupted his meditation session.  I noted that he was lounging about in a booth, at Bonefish Grill off of Ritchie Highway, scarfing down Bang Bang shrimp. 

“Those activities are not mutually exclusive,” he remarked.

I brushed aside his pithy declaration while he handed me the lunch bill. Sighing audibly but apparently not harshing his crustacean-augmented mellow, I asked if he read my post from yesterday.  He nodded.

“Too long, right?  Too much detail for the format?” I inquired.

“Just give ‘em the feel of the room,” he replied.  “Fuck, they never give you enough napkins, do they?”

Both are solid observations.

So with that in mind, I will do the best I can in this, Part Two, featuring the first three questions from the audience.

1) Promoting school safety.

Vaillancourt was up first and had the most evocative response, calling for schools to follow the “El Al” model (engage in “profiling,” presumably of students or others associated with the school who might be showing warning signs of being a threat to others or themselves). 

Altwerger centered her comments on the movement of students between the portables and the main buildings. 

Dyer concentrated on protecting against suicides.

French briefly discussed mental health, positive intervention strategies and “civility policing.”

Furman promoted the idea of a card access system for students, teachers and administrators as well as stepped-up anti-bullying efforts.

O’Connor said that she was not opposed to metal detectors in the schools, but that further research should be conducted (she called for additional studies more than once over the course of the evening).

Spartan Considerations thoughts:

Furman had his best moment of the night on this point.  He was both knowledgeable and confident in his response. 

Given credit where it is due, Dyer’s answer started out heart-felt and fluent.  But then he made a joke about how some folks like to “protect against asteroids” instead of focusing on more likely risks.  Why that moment for a comment like that?  It’s like he decorated a Christmas tree beautifully and, as a final touch, put a roll of toilet paper where the star should be. 

French’s reply was a little thin, felt a bit soft, for someone with her years on the Board.  She could have articulated some concrete solutions here.

2) Vision 2018: Where is the schedule? Where are the milestones?  

This is where some under-stated fireworks occurred.  The first two to respond to this question – Altwerger and Dyer – both agreed that it was a good vision but was light on specificity/progress.  Both thought that the Vision was being “sidetracked” (Altwerger) or “diverted” (Dyer) by issues pertaining to Common Core.

And then French spoke, holding up what she noted was a progress report issued by Superintendent Foose’s office.  She stated that the report contained a “tremendous amount of data” (presumably regarding the schedule and milestones) and that “implementation is underway.”  Giles, from the audience, also chimed in with a remark to the effect of “We have a date/We have dates.”

Furman commented that he was “glad we have this,” in a way that indicated that he was not aware of the public availability of the data that is said to be in the report.  He said there needs to be an implementation plan with hard deadlines, but there should be “flexibility” when needed to help meet the goals.

O’Connor re-iterated that she would be a full-time Board Member and that she would be going to the schools, presumably to check on the implantation of the Vision 2018 strategic plan.

Vaillancourt, in a not-so-veiled shot, wryly noted that, “we are good at coming up with the right words, but I want to put them into action.”  Zing.

Spartan Considerations thoughts:

This was fascinating.  The original question seemed simple enough, is there an on-track implementation schedule with specific milestones or not?  I deem it likely that every candidate on the stage performed their due diligence and studied up on Vision 2018, yet we appear to have a significant information gap.  Some believe there is forward movement and that the data exists and is publically available, while others do not believe that to be the case.  There should be a clear-cut answer here.  Who is wrong or misinformed? Is someone over-stating their position or willfully down-playing the amount of information that is available/progress made?     

3) Dual enrollment/remediation/Common Core-PARCC longitudinal tracking

So a heavy in the MD higher-education space came in to ask about the connection between K – 12 and collegiate performance.

Everyone said favorable things about dual enrollment.  There were no significant points of differentiation there. 

Dr. Freeman Hrabowski’s name was evoked by two of the candidates (French and Furman).  The former discussed his name in connection with UMBC scholarships for Howard County high school graduates, the latter in a response that focused on finding ways to help students bridge the gap (transition to college successfully? My notes are difficult to decipher here).

The rest of the conversation generally evolved (or descended) into a positioning exercise on Common Core, with Dyer and Altwerger stating their concerns:

Dyer: “fancy, expensive Common Core testing”

Altwerger: “I believe in high expectations,” but different learners learn at different rates, CC is “inflexible” and there needs to be a “local set of standards so teachers can meet the needs of the students they teach.”

French supports Common Core, believing it will help eliminate “inequities” in achievement.

O’Connor stated that she liked that Common Core was “trying to make it an even playing field” but also thinks that “more studies are needed.”

Spartan Considerations thoughts:

Your thoughts on who fared best on this multi-part question probably have more to do with your perspective on Common Core than anything else.  From a sheer communications perspective, Vaillancourt got a bit tangled up in her comments on remediation but no one tanked the question.

Well, it was shorter than Part One.  The forum was quite informative. 

Stay tuned, as more will follow.

Wednesday, September 10, 2014

An Unexpected Visitor - Part One

The day took an abrupt turn when I received a collect call from my former mentor, Slats MacCune.  He was at the Wicomico Regional Airport and he needed a lift.  Apparently, his mobile phone battery was juiceless and neither the car rental agency nor the pay phone would accept Maltese lira banknotes as valid currency.  I could hear him in the background, complaining loudly about unfavorable exchange rates, while the operator asked me if I would accept the charges.

Of course I would.

Three hours later and heading westbound on 50, Slats is slouched in my passenger seat.   He had just finished extolling the virtues of Machala in the summer and Oslo in the winter when the conversation drifted to politics.

“Listen,” I told him, “I need to head to the Columbia Democratic Club forum tonight, but I can drop you off at the house or Victoria Gastro Pub.”

“Bogota or Medellin?”  He suddenly seemed interested.

“Neither. Col-Umbia, not Col-Ombia,” I replied.

“Ah. Gotcha,” he paused.  “So is there an In-and-Out Burger we can stop at?” 

“We are east of Texas so no.  Anyway, you might be bored.  It is for the Howard County Board of Education.   Important but perhaps not your speed.”

Now Slats had earned, or at least acquired, a decent sum of money over the years.  Sometimes, these funds came from the coffers of political candidates whose ideologies or personal morals could charitably be described as “sketchy.”  Semi-retired these days, he nonetheless continues to hover around the edges of the Game and, lacking the ready availability of a more entertaining option, he stated emphatically and marginally profanely that he was up for attending the gathering.

We arrived shortly before the event was set to begin.  We were ten feet away from the main doors of the Jeffers Hill Neighborhood Center when Slats said he forgot something in the car, and could he borrow my keys.  Sure. 

I went in solo and grabbed a seat in the back of the room, which was best for observing the actions and reactions of the candidates as well as the local folks who assembled to watch the event and perhaps ask a question.  I chatted with a couple of people, waved at a few familiar faces, and took out my notepad.  I sat next to Maureen Evans Arthurs, who I wish was participating in the Forum as a candidate.  

The following analysis is based on the notes I scrawled hastily over the course of the evening:  

One last item before I launch into this dissection:  seven candidates participated, all but Mike Smith.  Dan Furman walked in right before the session began and Dr. Zaneb Beams had to leave early due to an important family obligation.  A couple of the current members of the Board of Education not up for re-election were also in attendance, Janet Siddiqui and Ellen Flynn Giles, in addition to around 25 other concerned office-holders, candidates, activists, and citizens.

Introductory Statement Mini-Summaries:

Bess Altwerger:  Bio. Equity.  Concerned about the implementation of Common Core and PARCC.

Zaneb Beams.  Bio.  “Wellness for the whole child.”

Allen Dyer.  Bio.  The need for the education system to “produce good citizens.” Openness (an oft-repeated Dyer theme). Closing the achievement gap. Working with County government.

Sandra “Sandy” French.  Almost all biography.

Dan Furman.  Bio.  “Equality of opportunity.”  Focusing on the specific needs of students.

Christine O’Connor.  Bio. Pledges to be a “full-time” Board Member.

Cynthia “Cindy” Vaillancourt. Bio.  Equity gap.  Achievement gap.  Getting people to recognize that problems exist and talk about solutions.  Start times.  Bad cereals/nutrition options.

Spartan Considerations thoughts: 

Given two minutes apiece, most of the candidates handled their introductions fairly well.  Altwerger deftly positioned herself as thoughtful academic and Common Core skeptic.  Beams had a solid point of differentiation given her background as a pediatrician.  Even Dyer, and this blog isn’t a fan of his, connected on some important issues.  O’Connor came across as practical, roll-up-our-sleeves, sort of educator who would spend time in the schools identifying, and helping find solutions, to challenges. Vaillancourt was energetic, and her “Lucky Charms” anecdote drew some laughter while being an effective means of talking about school nutrition.

Furman’s statement was fine but he is very low-key.  Having a mild-mannered Board Member isn’t a bad thing, in light of some of the personalities involved.  That said, his speaking style is a bit less than terribly engaging. 

French’s opening remarks were mostly, and perhaps entirely about her background.  That was disappointing.  Everyone else took the time to pivot to specific policy matters or other broader concerns but she chose to focus on her history.  A lost opportunity for French.

The only formal question from the Columbia Democratic Club, posed by Alan Brody, focused on the existence of inequality in Howard County schools.  Did it exist or no?  If yes, what examples could the candidates cite?  If no, how can the system remain free from inequality?

Unsurprisingly, all of the candidates agreed that inequities existed.

O’Connor focused on overcrowding, the need for a 13th high school, and the importance of redistricting.

Vaillancourt talked about over-crowding, a more equitable allocation of resources, helping all of the children in an effort to meet all of their needs.

Altwerger discussed economic disparities and the need for diverse student populations in the schools.  She believes that the neighborhood feeder system should be retained while working out solutions to avoid overcapacity issues.

Beams said that the inequities spanned four areas:  nutrition, size/over-crowding, buildings/physical facilities, and musical education.

Dyer stated that there were connections between “pockets of poverty” and problems in the classroom and mentioned a correlation between FARMS numbers and the aforementioned poverty pockets.  In a comment sure the raise the ire of educators, but not pounced on by any of the other candidates, he stated his belief that some teachers were “resistant” to “working harder” and that this resistance is why great educators are unwilling to teach at schools that are perceived to offer tougher environments for teachers. 

French stated largely accurately, perhaps a bit too fatalistically, that there are “always inequities somewhere.”  She indicated that professionals were hired to look at redistricting as well as to work on nutrition and the physical facilities.  She stressed the need to collaborate with the State and County governments for funding.  She also mentioned the developments occurring at Bryant Woods regarding free lunches as an example of progress. 

Furman spoke about Maintenance of Effort and the need to look beyond per-pupil based funding and more at the needs of specific schools; that while Clarksville and Oakland Mills, for example, may be similar in terms of the sheer number of students enrolled, they have “different needs” and solutions should be tailored accordingly.

Spartan Considerations thoughts: 

Dyer stepped in it, but he knew what he was doing.  The downside, for him, is that statements like that will remind voters of his issues when it comes to working well with others.  French’s response was also a little underwhelming.  She hit her stride as she kept talking but she started off her response sounding like an HR manager, and not a Board Member, when she was listing the hires made by the HCPSS.  Furman made some good points, but damn he could use some media training.

As this is running long, I am going to stop here, before I launch into the questions posed by the audience members.   This looks like a two or three part post.

Side note: has anyone seen a black Honda Civic HX? 

Stay tuned, as more will follow.

Saturday, September 6, 2014

An Older Prediction - Time to Get your Stats On

Taken from a Facebook note I wrote & posted on November 2, 2012.  Such a simpler time...now  with an update in the post-script!

The 2012 Presidential Election: My Prediction

November 2, 2012 at 3:21pm

Election predictions, essentially, are a parlor game.  That said, if you are in the campaign industry, are fortunate enough to get it right, and enough people know that you got it right, you can wear that laurel wreath as a symbol of your political genius for a decade. (For those in the industry, you know who I am talking about...no names please).

In some election cycles, calling winners and losers at this stage of the game, the weekend before Election Day, is relatively easy.  At this point, former Vice President Mondale knew he wasn’t going to defeat President Reagan.  Senator McGovern knew that he wasn’t going to deny President Nixon a second term.  I am quite certain that Judge Parker looked at the map when he was running against President Theodore Roosevelt and said the 1904 equivalent of “Gentlemen, I am hosed.”

In other cycles, including some recent presidential elections, the outcome was far more uncertain.  Both 2000 and 2004 fell into that category.

Bear in mind, a national presidential election is really 51 state elections (or 50 states + DC if you want to get technical about it).  Electoral college votes determine the winner of the election and they are awarded on a winner-take-all basis.  Win a state by a million votes?  Congratulations, you receive 100% of the electoral votes for that state (we can discuss Maine and Nebraska later, I am making a point here).  Defeated in a state by one vote?  Too bad, because the winner just won 100% of the electoral votes for that state. Loser.

In short, small differences in one or a handful of states can determine the outcome.

Everyone knows that a flip of just 269 votes in Florida would have tipped the election from Governor Bush to Vice President Gore in 2000.  Common knowledge.

Fewer people know just how close 2004 was.  To this day, I am convinced that Senator Kerry’s flip-flop gaffe cost him the election.  Some people know that if 59,300 votes in Ohio flipped from President Bush to Kerry (only one percent of the state vote and .048% of the national vote), then John Kerry would have been our nation’s 44th President.  Fewer still are aware that a flip of even fewer votes (18,776 or .015359% of the national vote) would have sent the election to the House of Representatives.  This would have been accomplished by the following flips in three states:

Nevada 10,751 votes from Bush to Kerry (5 electoral votes)
Iowa 5,030 votes from Bush to Kerry (7 electoral votes)
New Mexico: 2,995 votes from Bush to Kerry (5 electoral votes)

So by a relatively small percentage of the vote in three states, 17 electoral votes would have gone from Republican to Democratic, resulting in a 269 – 269 tie and a nation full of Constitutional scholars debating “Does our Presidential Selection Process Work?”  (Note: this assumes that the Democratic elector who voted for Edwards, and I wonder how that Minnesota elector feels about that today, would have cast their ballot for Kerry instead of playing around).

In any event, 2004, based solely on the criteria of the percentage of the national vote that, if flipped, would have changed the outcome, was the sixth closest presidential election ever.  It was even closer than the fabled Truman – Dewey showdown of 1948.

Percentage of the National Vote Difference (flip from eventual winner to eventual loser) from smallest to largest percentage for the seven closest presidential elections:

1. 2000 (Bush vs. Gore) - .00025% (269 votes flip in Florida & Gore wins)
2. 1884 (Cleveland vs. Blaine) - .0052% (524 votes flip in New York & Blaine wins)
3. 1876 (Hayes vs. Tilden) - .00529% (445 votes flip in South Carolina & Tilden wins)
4. 1916 (Wilson vs. Hughes) - .00923% (1,711 votes flip in California & Hughes wins)
5. 1960 (Kennedy vs. Nixon) - .01052% (7,245 votes flip in four states to Nixon & the election goes to the House) or .01777% (12,236 votes flip in five states & Nixon wins outright).
6. 2004 (Bush vs. Kerry) - .01535% (18,776 votes flip in three states & the election goes to the House) or .04848% (59,300 votes flip in Ohio & Kerry wins outright).
7. 1948 (Truman vs. Dewey) - .02564% (12,487 votes flip in two states & the election goes to the House) or .06016% (29,294 votes flip in three states & Dewey wins outright).

Yes, I spent part of a vacation in 2010 working out the math for every presidential election. Everyone has hobbies...

I know, enough history already. So, let’s turn to 2012.

First, I believe that both President Obama and former Governor Romney start off with a base of around 125 electoral votes.  Remember, it takes 270 electoral votes to win.

If either Obama or Romney were to lose one of the states in their “core” (for example, if Obama lost California or if Romney was defeated in Texas), then do not expect a long night, as a landslide is about to occur.  In which case, many pollsters should be drummed out of the industry.  This scenario is unlikely to happen.

There is a second tier of states for each candidate where an upset is very unlikely, but possible.  For Obama, this would be a state such as New Mexico.  For Romney, it would be South Carolina.  Adding such states up with the mortal-lock states, you end up with around 180 electoral votes apiece.

There is a third tier, which is small for both Romney and Obama, where they have a lead but could lose.  Minnesota & Oregon for Obama and Arizona for Romney fit this bill.  If you add up the electoral votes in this category, the President is right around 200 electoral votes and Romney is slightly above 190.  Overall, it is still very close.

This race fundamentally comes down to 11 (and most likely nine) states: Ohio, Nevada, New Hampshire, Virginia, Florida, North Carolina, Wisconsin, Colorado, Iowa, Pennsylvania and Michigan.  These states, primarily the first nine, will play an out-sized role in determining if Obama will be re-elected or if Romney will become the 45th President.

I expect that certain states that voted for Mr. Obama in 2008 will end up in the Republican column in 2012.  I do not believe the President will win any states that voted for McCain in 2008.   That, combined with reapportionment, gives Mr. Romney a much better shot at 270 compared to the previous Republican presidential nominee.

That said, I expect that President Obama will win both Pennsylvania and Michigan, putting him 237 electoral votes, 33 short of victory.

I predict that the President will win in Ohio, Nevada, New Hampshire and Virginia.  Moreover, I predict that Romney is likely to carry Florida, North Carolina, Wisconsin, Colorado and Iowa.

Turning to the two states that factor in performance at the congressional district level when awarding electoral votes, assuming that both Maine Congressional districts vote for Obama and that Romney wins all of the Congressional districts in Nebraska, that works out to 278 electoral votes for President Obama and re-election…and 260 electoral votes for Mitt Romney and a return to the private sector.

More important than the prediction is the possibility that only a small number of votes will determine who wins the Presidency.  In short, vote.


So yes, I called it conservatively for President Obama - who captured 332 electoral votes compared to 206 for Romney, definitely out-performing my projected outcome.  Call me a pessimist.

But with a flip 214,764 votes in four states...Florida, Ohio, Virginia and New Hampshire, Romney would have obtained 270 EVs, just enough to win.  That number of popular votes may sound like a sizable number, and it is...but it represents a mere .166% of the popular votes cast for President that year.  Thus, it was the 15th closest Presidential election in U.S. history, based on my "vote flip" model.  In short, looking at relatively recent presidential election cycles, it was closer than the 1992 election (19th overall) and not as close as the 1976 election (11th overall).

Just some fun facts on a Saturday afternoon.  Not that I am thinking about 2016.  Not at all.

Stay tuned, as more will follow.


Friday, September 5, 2014

Elections and Consequences

I, for one, am elated that Election Day is fast approaching.  I am looking forward to a respite from campaign analysis; and a shift to writing about other topics of interest. So stay tuned as more will….not so fast.

This one is for progressive-minded Democrats, Republicans and unaffiliated HoCo voters who are undecided or possibly Kittleman-leaning in the Howard County Executive race.  Let’s play a game of “What If?”

Let’s assume the following scenario:  Larry Hogan – a B-tier GOP gubernatorial candidate - loses to LG Anthony Brown in November, by a single-digit margin, while Senator Allan Kittleman manages to pull off an upset and is elected the next Howard County Executive. 

Given this set of circumstances, Kittleman immediately becomes the R-to-watch and the front-runner for the Republican nomination for Governor in 2018.  Moreover, he would have a genuine shot at winning, as he is clearly more serious than Hogan (who isn't a slouch, but still...).

So by voting for Kittleman this November, you are helping to position a surprisingly conservative Republican for statewide office…someone who received a failing grade from the Maryland State Education Association while obtaining an “A” from the National Rifle Association and possessing a 100% rating from Maryland Right-to-Life.

Neither a moderate temperament nor a centrist voting record on a couple of issues can obscure the reality that Kittleman is not the progressive choice in the race for Howard County Executive.  So my advice, not that you asked for it, is to take a careful look at the totality of his voting history and issue stances and ask yourself, is this someone who will be the best advocate for families and communities like mine or is there a better choice? 

And will a vote for him now help elect a rather conservative Republican Governor in Maryland in 2018?  Just something to consider.

Oh yes...stay tuned, as more will follow.