School board hopefuls; weigh in; Candidates give views on topics, including lead, teacher pay; Health and safety; Bullying and mental health; Teacher compensation, recruitment and retention
Capital - 10/22/2018
Class sizes are too large. There aren't enough school counselors. Students need safe, clean drinking water.
The county's public schools face a variety of issues. This year, for the first time, county residents will vote for school board members.
In the weeks leading up to the historic election, candidates who want to represent Districts 4, 5 and 7 debated at a series of forums hosted by Take Action Anne Arundel County.
Candidates Candace Antwine and David Starr were interviewed separately by Capital Gazette.
The candidates found common ground on teacher compensation. They clashed over cell towers and had different ideas on what the district's spending priorities should be.
Candidates at the forums discussed a range of topics, including strategies to improve communication between the school board and families, ways to accommodate the district's growing number of immigrant families, and school construction.
This is how the candidates weighed in on a few of the issues at the forefront of K-12 education in the county.
Health and safety
Candace Antwine (Dist. 1): Antwine called bullying the most pressing safety issue in the school district and called for more mental health professionals in county schools. She said cell towers should not be erected on school grounds.
David Starr (Dist. 1): Starr said lead is one of the biggest health and safety issues facing students. "This is an immediate health and safety concern that needs a final resolution," Starr said in an email. "There are still parts of the water systems in our schools that are in need of testing and those that need to be replaced."
Julie Hummer (Dist. 4): The current school board president stood by the group's decision to vote against HB 270, the statewide law passed in May that requires school districts test water outlets for lead.
"We oppose any bill that is an unfunded mandate, even if it is something we believe in," Hummer said. She discussed the district's efforts to go beyond the law and test consumable and non-consumable water outlets, though Superintendent George Arlotto recently announced the district would stop testing the latter in an effort to expedite the process. Hummer said she supports the construction of cell towers on school property.
Melissa Ellis (Dist. 4): Ellis criticized the school board for opposing HB 270. "Had that mandate not passed, we would not be aware that, yes, we do have a problem with lead coming out of our pipes at our schools."
Ellis shot down the idea of building cell towers on or near school property.
Terry Gilleland (Dist. 5): The school board vice presidenthas faced backlash for siding with cell towers and accepting a $500 campaign contribution from tower company, Milestone Tower Limited Partnership III. Some community members have also criticized Gilleland and the school board for waiting until the state mandate was passed to test water for lead.
Gilleland said the system wanted to wait until the state established regulations; some counties that tested outlets before regulations were set had to retest, Gilleland said.
Dana Schallheim (Dist. 5): The longtime community volunteer said there is not enough evidence to suggest cell towers are safe on or near school property. "I'm 1,000 percent a 'no' on cell towers on or adjacent to school property. It doesn't further our mission. I don't believe Anne Arundel County Public Schools should be in the cell tower business."
Laticia Hicks (Dist. 7): Hicks suggested the board continue to research the issue of cell towers. "I think that there's enough information to give us pause to say we absolutely need to find other locations that will not expose our children to those possible health risks," Hicks said.
She also criticized the school board for not testing water outlets for lead sooner than the state mandate.
Michelle Corkadel (Dist. 7): Corkadel said she disagreed with the way the school district communicated with families about the lead testing process and water results.
"I'm going to bring some more transparency to the table on these health issues," she said. Corkadel did not explicitly support or oppose cell towers, but suggested working with health officials to identify risks. She said the school district should continue to invest in initiatives to protect students from gun violence, such as active shooter training.
Bullying and mental health
Antwine said the school district should readdress its policies for dealing with harassment. "We need to design policy to accommodate teachers, students and staff of a changing environment," she said.
She recommended the school board advocate for more mental health counselors.
Starr said school administrators should respond to cases of bullying in a "fair and balanced manner."
"Racism, bullying, and discrimination must not be permitted," Starr said. "As a parent of a child with special needs I have witnessed this first-hand and understand the effect it has on our children."
Hummer: Hummer acknowledged the school district's bullying problem, as well as discipline gaps - black students are 3.5 times more likely to be suspended from school than their white counterparts. The school board last budget cycle asked for 14.5 guidance counselors, but the County Council only approved 4.5, Hummer said.
"We need to have appropriate staff on hand to address [students'] needs," Hummer said. "If we do not receive the funding for this support, we're losing some of those children."
Ellis recommended the district conduct an external audit to "clean up schools and find areas to save" so it can hire more counselors. She also called for more diverse teachers and staff.
"Studies show that students succeed when staff represent them, when they look like them and they come from their culture," Ellis said. "We need to groom our students to become our teachers."
Gilleland encouraged students and parents at the District 5 forum to report bullying as soon as it happens. He championed the restorative justice model being used throughout the school system.
"The reality is, there are sometimes bad people thinking bad thoughts, and curing that is extremely difficult," Gilleland said. "What's better now than in the past is that we're willing to talk about things."
He said he looked forward to advocating for more counselors to the new County Council.
Schallheim said the school district can hire more counselors once it stops expanding its main office on Riva Road.
"Since 2015, professional staff was increased by 30 people. That could have been 30 counselors at schools or 30 psychologists," Schallheim said. "Those were budgets that were approved with [Gilleland]."
Some of the new hires included bilingual facilitators, who work extensively with immigrant families. Schallheim suggested the school district adopt the Anne Arundel County chapter of the NAACP's suggestion to implement a zero-tolerance policy regarding hate speech.
Hicks called for smaller class sizes to help teachers form better relationships with students.
"If we could reduce our class sizes, increase our psychologists and our counselors, and create a better system to keep track and have those interactions with our students, that would be helpful," Hicks said.
She also backed the NAACP's suggestion to enforce a zero-tolerance policy.
Corkadel said the county needs school administrators who can respond to bullying quickly. She cited the county's opioid epidemic as a potential source of bullying.
"That's what these kids are going home to every day," Corkadel said. "There's a connection between bullying and mental health and, believe me, it is big."
She recommended schools routinely review their codes of conduct.
Teacher compensation, recruitment and retention
Antwine said the school board should work directly with teachers to identify their needs. She promised to advocate on teachers' behalf to secure competitive pay.
Starr said the county is not providing teachers with competitive compensation.
"As such, the school system continues to struggle with teacher recruitment and retention," Starr said in an email. "This is critical and must be addressed to provide our students with a quality education."
Hummer admitted Anne Arundel County offers teachers one of the lowest starting salaries in the state. She encouraged the audience at the District 4 forum to support Question 1 in the midterm election, an initiative that will direct casino profits into a lockbox for education.
"That's tens, thousands of dollars more that can be used to make our teachers whole," Hummer said. She suggested the district focus on offering other incentives that will make teachers want to remain in the county.
Ellis said she wants to focus on restoring the step increases teachers missed out on after the 2008 recession.
"We are hiring teachers who might have the same level of experience as teachers currently working in our school system, but are at a higher step level," Ellis said. "That's pretty demoralizing."
Gilleland said the number of teachers is not growing at the same rate as enrollment.
"That means bigger classes, heavier workloads for teachers, teachers taking work home," he said. "That's not the morale boost that we need in the school system."
He said staffing and compensation, along with class sizes, are the most pressing funding concerns.
Schallheim said teacher compensation should be the school board's biggest funding priority. She wants to reinstitute step increases for educators, and called to reallocate money away from the district office and into schools
Hicks said the district needs to prioritize recruiting and retaining educators.
"We are losing our teachers to the surrounding counties," Hicks said. "It's important for us to actually prioritize our teachers so they can prioritize our students."
She encouraged families at the District 7 forum to support Question 1.
Corkadel bills herself as "The Conservative Choice" for her conservative approach to spending.
"I've seen the troubles, the woes and the things to celebrate," Corkadel said. "I think if we just tighten that budget up, I think we can well afford better, qualified teachers coming into the county, as well as supporting existing ones."
Credit: By Lauren Lumpkin - firstname.lastname@example.org - twitter.com/lauren_lumps