Two candidates with experience as teachers and administrators are facing off in the Board of Education race in district 1 for the seat left open by school board member Gabe Romero, who is not seeking re-election. Judith Docca and Michael Ibanez both have a strong interest in closing the achievement gap. Ibanez would like to oversee the implementation of new academic requirements, and Docca says her varied work within the school system gives her an insider’s knowledge for getting things done.
All county residents vote in all school board district races. District 1 covers Gaithersburg, Poolesville and the up county, but all school board members represent constituents throughout Montgomery County.
MICHAEL IBANEZ is a former Montgomery County Public Schools teacher who now works as a private school educator. He ran unsuccessfully for an at large Board of Education seat in 2004.
Ibanez would like to implement new academic requirements, such as all students completing algebra by the end of eighth grade, and taking at least one Advanced Placement, International Baccalaureate or Honors course during their high school tenure.
In addition, he wants to require extended school-day remediation for ninth-grade students who fail any core subject and all high school students who fail a Maryland State Assessment.
Ibanez supports Superintendent Jerry Weast’s efforts to close the achievement gap through intensive reading remediation, but questions why those programs didn’t come earlier and in more depth.
“What were they waiting for?” he asked. “This was on the horizon as far as the eye can see, and only now are they taking steps to increase the reading.”
Ibanez would also like to see more “local site control” at the schools rather than top-down administrative control from the division’s central office. He believes this would have prevented the Seven Locks Elementary debacle, in which the local community butted heads with the school system for attempting to close the school. He cited cell phone policies and snack machines in schools as examples of issues that could be decided by administrators on site.
JUDITH DOCCA worked in Montgomery County Public Schools as a Spanish and French teacher, a human relations specialist, an assistant principal at Blair High School and a principal at Argyle Middle School. Docca is a youth sponsor and education chair for the local NAACP, and she set up a “principal’s academy” to encourage staff and faculty to become administrators through the Montgomery County Alliance of Black School Educators.
“The fact that I’ve been in the school system as a teacher, a coordinator in the central office and an administrator means I can bring some insights into how policies affect the employees, the teaching and the administrative staff as well as the support services staff,” she said.
Docca said that the school system should lighten the standardized testing load where possible.
“In middle school, 13 days in May are devoted to testing,” she said. “Plus there’s a lot of training throughout the year for the test to make sure kids are familiar with the way the test is set up and with the vocabulary. We need to cut back on that.”
Like Ibanez, Docca stressed high expectations and redoubled remediation efforts as key to closing the achievement gap.
THE BOARD of Education races often fly beneath the political radar. The school board positions are non-partisan and less publicized than races like County Council.
“A lot of people don’t even vote for school board,” said Gail Ewing, an adjunct professor in political science at Montgomery College, who served on the County Council as a Democrat from 1990 to 1998. “Not nearly enough attention is paid to it, though it’s probably one of the most important decisions people can make … about who sets policy on the education of children.”
With insufficient attention on the school board races, how do voters make their decision?
“I think it very much depends on the apple ballot – that is a big element in the outcome,” said Ewing. “Those people who don’t mind voting and who don’t want to do background investigation, they go with who the teachers are endorsing.”
THE MONTGOMERY COUNTY Education Association (MCEA) is the local teacher’s union, and it is a particularly influential endorsement, partly because MCEA volunteers distribute literature at every poll in the county on Election Day. MCEA endorsements are based on a lengthy interview process about issues relevant to the school system. MCEA president Bonnie Cullison said that at least 75 percent of MCEA endorsed candidates have won election in the 20 years that she has been in the teachers’ union. Often, the success rate is even higher than that. In September’s primary election, MCEA-endorsed candidates won all but one race.
The union endorsed Docca in district 1, alongside Nancy Navarro of Silver Spring in district 5 and Shirley Brandman of Bethesda in the at large race. Patricia O’Neill of Bethesda was endorsed for district 3, but she is not being challenged in the race. Navarro and Brandman won their respective primaries by a wide margin.
“Judy was … a pioneer in working on the issues of race that we are now challenged with in terms of the achievement gap,” said Bonnie Cullison, president of the Montgomery County Education Association. “When she came to interview with us, she talked about how important it is for teachers to have time to work with individual students, to plan strong lessons, to look at data, and to communicate with parents. These are things that resonate deeply with teachers.”
SANDY VOGELGESANG, who is leader of the Save Seven Locks Coalition and president of the West Bradley Citizen’s Association, said that her coalition is informally supporting Docca. (The coalition, which formed to prevent the closure of Seven Locks Elementary, is a nonpartisan entity and therefore does not formally endorse candidates.)
Nonetheless, the backing that the Save Seven Locks Coalition provided to the other two favored candidates, Brandman and Navarro, appears to have made a difference in their contested primary elections. Coalition members knocked on doors and distributed literature supporting the candidates at all homes in Seven Locks area, in addition to posting yard signs and hosting neighborhood meet-and-greets.
At precinct 10-3, the main polling place for the Seven Locks area, Brandman received 70 percent of the vote, compared to 58 percent countywide. Navarro received 72 percent of the vote, compared to 57 percent countywide.
“The candidates we’re supporting reflect a commitment to being accountable to communities and PTAs,” said Vogelgesang, who emphasized the issue of school system accountability throughout the Seven Locks debate. “Second … they are committed to asking tough questions about information or proposals that come to them from MCPS, including from the superintendent.”
One or two more seats on the Board of Education could open up after the general election since school board members Valerie Ervin and Stephen Abrams are running for the County Council. A move from the Board of Education to the County Council is not infrequent. Current Councilmember Marilyn Praisner and former Councilmember Blair Ewing both made the leap.
“It doesn’t happen very often, but you can see how it would be a natural,” said Gail Ewing, who is of no relation to Blair Ewing. “Over half of the Montgomery County budget goes to the schools.”
Education: BA from Penn State University; MA from George Washington University; Ed.D. in educational administration from George Washington University
Experience: former teacher and administrator; youth sponsor and education chair for the NAACP; SAT tutor
Endorsements: Montgomery County Education Association, NARAL, Montgomery County Firefighters, Hispanic Democratic Club, African-American Democratic Club, Coalition of Asian/Pacific American Democrats, NARAL Pro-Choice America
Occupation: retired teacher
Family: son and three grandchildren
Lives in: Montgomery Village
Finances: $7,850 in contributions and $4,082 in expenditures; cash balance of $3,768 as of Aug. 15
Education: BS in Education, University of Maryland; MA in Education Loyola University, CA
Experience: community activist
Occupation: private school teacher and administrator
Family: married 23 years; four children
Lives in: Montgomery Village
Campaign Finances: no data available