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.

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