First of three stories on Board of Education races.
With several local school issues set to be resolved in the coming year, Potomac voters have an especially large stake in November’s board of education elections. Three seats on will be decided—an at large seat and the seats from districts 2 and 4. All county voters cast votes for all three seats.
Stephen Abrams said he filed as a candidate in the district 2 race after incumbent Walter Lange announced last year that he would not run for reelection. But Lange changed his mind and now the men — who served together on the board from 2000-2002 — are locked in a spirited race.
Abrams, a resident of Rockville, served on the board from 1992-1996 and 1998-2002. Lange, of North Potomac, was elected in 2000.
Both candidates say that the county’s schools have a lot to celebrate right now
As for what areas are in need of change, Lange pointed to disparate performance levels. “We still have that persistent gap in performance between white students and Asian students and our African American and Latino students who are not doing quite so well,” he said, and “We need to revisit the [special education] program to provide more comprehensive support.”
Lange pointed out that under the No Child Left Behind act, schools are evaluated largely on the performance improvements of minority, special education and English as a second language students. “Everybody is watching the rate of improvement for each of those groups of students,” and though improving their performance should be and end in itself, “the increased scrutiny is another reason why we have to make increased progress with those student groups.”
Abrams said that the school system needs to build on the gains made in its successful early education program. “We need to follow through on that,” he said “with particular emphasis on middle school and with emphasis on changing the culture in the Montgomery County school system in terms of how we deal special education students and their parents.” Abrams also thinks that the financial needs of the schools can be partly met by eliminating countywide inefficiencies. “We need to reform the contracting procurement process in the schools,” he said. “They’re not taking advantage of the best negotiation [practices].”
One pressing school issue for Potomac residents is the future of the Seven Locks Elementary School site. The county is considering declaring the school site as surplus and possibly using it to build affordable housing. A new school is being built nearby on Kendale Road and residents and civic groups have said that the Kendale decision making process was not sufficiently transparent.
“I think that the board did observe the policy in terms of communicating the considerations that we were undergoing,” Lange said about the Kendale school. “What we have seen over the years is that civic groups and folks that are not directly involved with the schools are not always attuned to the school related activities, even when we sent out notification. … I’m not sure how the breakdown in communication happened so that some of our civic federations feel they have not been adequately informed.”
Abrams said, “I think the right outcome might have been reached but I’m not sure it was reached the right way. … By going to the Kendale site you’re in a circumstance where you can accelerate [improving facilities for Seven Locks students] that and save money at the same time,” he said, “but that needs to be communicated a lot better to the community.”
Both candidates say they are opposed to declaring the Seven Locks site, or any other school site, as surplus. The School Board is also considering another site on Brickyard Road in Potomac as surplus.
“I believe that one thing that we’re not growing any more of is property, and I think that its important that we hang on to sizable school properties” while letting go of 1 acre 1.5 acre sites with “no foreseeable future school use,” Lange said. Abrams stated, “I’m not for surplussing sites period right now.”
Greater transparency system-wide starts with more independent thought among board members, said Abrams. “I’m a huge fan of the superintendent. I think he’s doing a terrific job,” he said. “However, I don’t sense anyone on the board who’s been willing to nudge him and tell him when he’s doing wrong once in a while. And I’m willing to do that.”
“My opponent prides himself on being an independent thinker, and independent thinking is good but we’re already going in a good direction so I think cooperation is good,” said Lange. “We can look around the local political scene and see local jurisdictions where there is a contentious relationship between boards and their superintendents and the consequences are not pretty.”
The candidates also differ in their positions on all-day kindergarten. “I’m probably the lone voice in the wilderness, because I’m not in favor of all day kindergarten for every kid,” said Abrams, who supports the program for minorities and lower-performing groups but says that implementing it across the board is not a good expenditure of resources.
Abrams, who is also a proponent of new construction, knows he might not win over critics on the kindergarten issue. “If you are going to have it you’re going to need some capacity,” he said.
That’s one place where he and his opponent agree. “With over 700 portables, we’ve got to do something to increase construction,” Lange said.
A final point of contrast between the candidates is their positions on ballot question A, which would take away County Council’s authority to raise property taxes more than the rate of inflation.
Abrams is a vocal supporter of the measure which he says is a step towards greater fiscal responsibility and fairer taxation in the county while Lange is staunchly opposed.
The Board of Education passed a Sept. 27 resolution formally opposing the measure and other education groups like the Montgomery county Council of Parent Teacher Associations have also come out against it, saying that the amendment would force massive cuts to the county’s education programs.