Category Archives: Board of Education

Undervoting on School Board Races and Ballot Questions

By Adam Pagnucco.

This year has four hotly contested county ballot questions and at least one legitimately contested school board election. But here is something folks tend to forget: not everyone votes on these so-called “down ballot” races. And the question of who is not voting is almost as important as the question of who is.

In a presidential year, almost everyone who votes casts a vote for president. There are lots of other races at stake. This year, MoCo voters can also vote for Congress, judges, school board, two state ballot questions and four county ballot questions. However, there will inevitably be undervoting in many of these races. For the purpose of this post, the definition of “undervoting” is the percentage of people who cast a ballot but don’t vote in a particular contest. There is a lot of undervoting.

The table below shows undervoting in MoCo school board races since 2002. On average, one-third of people casting votes do not vote for school board.

The table below shows undervoting in MoCo for state ballot questions since 2002. On average, one in seven people casting votes do not vote on state ballot questions.

The table below shows undervoting in MoCo for county ballot questions since 2002. On average, one in six people casting votes do not vote on county ballot questions.

What determines undervoting? As shown in the tables above, undervoting seems to be a little less prevalent in presidential years, though not by much. Undervoting is much higher for school board races than ballot questions. That makes sense since – at least in some cases – voters can figure out how they feel about ballot questions from their language whereas school board candidates don’t have enough money to communicate directly with voters.

There is a little bit of evidence that clear and consequential ballot questions lead to less undervoting. County ballot question undervoting was lower than average in 2004 (when nine council districts and Ficker amendments on taxes and term limits were on the ballot) and in 2016 (when Ficker’s term limits amendment passed). State ballot question undervoting was about half the normal rate in 2008, when early voting and slots were on the ballot.

The table below shows the ballot questions with the lowest undervotes since 2002.

Four out of these five – slots, early voting, taxes and term limits – were big-deal questions. They were also relatively easy to understand for voters.

The table below shows the ballot questions with the highest undervotes since 2002.

There isn’t much of a pattern here. The police effects bargaining question in 2012 was the only question that was strongly contested.

One more thing that will be of interest to all the groups promoting or advocating against specific ballot questions this year: most ballot questions pass. Since 2002, MoCo voters have voted in favor of 81% of county ballot questions and 92% of state ballot questions.

Here are the results for the four county ballot questions that have failed since 2002.

All four – term limits (2004), nine council districts (2004), property tax limits (2004) and the ambulance fee (2010) – were the targets of vigorous campaigns dedicated to killing them. All four saw lower than average undervoting.

There will certainly be undervoting this year and the stakes for the county, especially from the county ballot questions, are especially high. How will that affect the outcome?

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School Board Campaign Finances, October 18

By Adam Pagnucco.

The school board candidates’ last campaign finance reports prior to the general election were submitted to the state on Friday. The table below shows money raised and spent for both the primary and the general.

There are a number of things I could point to here, such as Sunil Dasgupta’s financial edge over Lynne Harris (although that has declined in the general) and the fact that incumbents Rebecca Smondrowski and Shebra Evans don’t seem to be taking their challengers very seriously. (Smondrowski’s opponent, Michael Fryar, has raised no money but was still endorsed by the Washington Post. MCEA has not endorsed in that race.)

But the big story is what I wrote the last time I looked at these reports: these candidates are basically all broke. And that is particularly striking given the fact that at least a half-million people are probably going to vote in the general election this year. It’s impossible to reach that many people on a $20,000 budget (or less).

To MoCo’s state delegation: school board candidates desperately need public financing. Please introduce legislation enabling that to happen.

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Teachers Repond to Lynne Harris

Guest blog by Grace Lovelace, David Stein and Kerrin Torres-Meriwether.

Classroom educators in MCPS, such as ourselves, were disappointed by Board of Education candidate Lynne Harris’s comments to the Blair High School newspaper, Silver Chips. A potential Board of Education member should refrain from comments that add to a nation-wide, slanderous campaign against teachers’ unions. While we found her comments to be false and accusatory of her fellow educators and our Association being obstructionist, we appreciate Ms. Harris’s apology.

As we reflect on Ms. Harris’s comments and apology, it is important to clarify the following:

Montgomery County Board of Education members oversee a school system with over 160,000 students and a budget of more than two billion dollars. Board members must choose their public words carefully; they do not have the luxury of speaking off the cuff, even when they are tired.

The Montgomery County Education Association (MCEA) and our colleagues across the country have been the most vital voice for guaranteeing safety for staff members and students before returning to schools and worksites.

MCEA and its educators are not to blame for schools being closed, given that we do not make the decision to reopen. In fact, over the last several months, MCEA staff and members have been hard at work advocating and collaborating on the robust virtual program staff members, students, and parents deserve in addition to safe and structured reopening proposals. We have presented MCPS with innovative proposals, including requests for personal protective equipment and adequate sanitation supplies; training for staff members, students, and parents on proper COVID-19 protocols and precautions; and a district matching program for donated resources with equitable distribution to highly impacted schools. MCEA has played a constructive role in ensuring educator seats at the table, as we advocate for educators, students, and their families.

We are proud of the work we and our colleagues do, not only in schools and other worksites but in the additional hours we volunteer with our Association. While they may sometimes disagree with our positions, Board of Education members customarily demonstrate respect for our union’s work. They must inspire confidence among educators and help establish transparent communication between the school district and families. They should promote the profession of educators and amplify their voices; Ms. Harris, in both her original comments and in her apology, failed in this fundamental obligation.

Grace Lovelace is a second-grade teacher at Brown Station Elementary School.
David Stein is a math teacher at Montgomery Blair High School.
Kerrin Torres-Meriwether is a staff development teacher at Watkins Mill High School.

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Harris Apologizes for Comments on School Reopening

By Adam Pagnucco.

School board at-large candidate Lynne Harris, who blasted the Montgomery County Education Association (MCEA) for allegedly obstructing school reopening, has apologized. Harris issued the statement below on her website.

STATEMENT REGARDING COMMENTS IN SEPT. 27 SILVER CHIPS PRESS RELEASE

I deeply apologize for comments I made to the reporters from Silver Chips, the student newspaper for Montgomery Blair High School. I recognize that the comments hurt and offended fellow teachers and do not reflect my deep respect and gratitude for their dedicated work to support our students.

As a teacher myself, I know how hard MCPS staff members are working during this time of crisis. Many of us are balancing the work with supporting the distance learning of our own kids — that can be a gargantuan task, particularly if you have young learners, or students with special needs. As rewarding as the work is, many of us are feeling fatigue and frustration working 7 days a week to get the job done.

It’s a bad idea to speak to the media when you’re tired and frustrated. My words do not reflect how much I value the hard work of MCPS educators. I am sorry to anyone who feels unappreciated by my poorly-worded comments. Offending hard-working fellow teachers is the last thing I ever intended to do.

I’m grateful to the many teachers and staff who volunteered for the important work on design teams last summer. I also worked on a curriculum review/writing team, which included writing a plan to bring small groups of students safely back into our buildings for specialized training. While teachers were working on these projects, MCEA (the teachers’ union) and MCPS were simultaneously engaged in difficult contract negotiations, impacting a more collaborative approach to create a plan for distance learning.

I hope you’ll read my blog below for a more thorough perspective. Teachers, MCPS, families – we all want to keep students and staff safe. I welcome a meeting with MCEA anytime to clear up any misunderstandings.

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Harris Blasts MCEA Over School Reopening

By Adam Pagnucco.

Silver Chips, the online newspaper for Blair High School, had quite a scoop yesterday. The newspaper asked school board at-large candidates Lynne Harris and Sunil Dasgupta for their opinions on the statement issued by MCPS and its three employee unions about potential reopening for in-person instruction. According to Silver Chips, Harris said the following in an email on Saturday:

Personally I’m completely frustrated that the associations, especially MCEA, would NOT get in the boat and row since Spring to help create meaningful Covid plans for teaching and learning, especially limited in-person instruction––they were obstructionist, inflammatory, and just said ‘no’ to everything. We need plans in place NOW to bring small groups of students into schools safely––for special education instruction, for specialized arts and other programs that require access to MCPS facilities and resources to be equitably delivered, for CTE programs that can’t be delivered virtually etc.

Harris had more to say about this topic on her website.

Silver Chips also carried a reply from Dasgupta that conforms with his guest blog on Seventh State today.

Dasgupta has been endorsed by MCEA (the teachers) and SEIU Local 500 (support staff) among others. Harris has been endorsed by the Washington Post editorial board, which at various times over the years has been critical of MCEA.

During the primary, there weren’t a lot of apparent differences between Harris and Dasgupta as both were defending MCPS’s boundary study from criticism by fellow at-large candidate Stephen Austin, who finished third, and his supporters. Silver Chips has done the public an immense service by revealing a meaningful difference between these candidates.

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School Board Candidates Need Public Financing

By Adam Pagnucco.

This week, MoCo’s school board candidates reported their campaign finances through August 18. The results for the cycle are below. Here’s a three-word summary: they’re all broke.

Let’s put this in perspective. In 2018, seven candidates for county council at-large raised $200,000 or more to communicate with a Democratic primary electorate which ultimately totaled 134,212 voters. That means they had $1.50 or more per voter.

This year, 272,697 people of all parties voted in the MoCo primary. That was the universe of folks with whom school board candidates had to communicate. But unlike council at-large candidates, school board candidates who win primaries also have competitive general elections. In 2016 (the last presidential year), 483,429 people voted in MoCo’s general election. This year, it will be well over 500,000 voters. If the leading school board fundraiser, at-large candidate Sunil Dasgupta, is able to raise $50,000 this cycle – a very big if! – he would effectively have 6 cents per voter counting both the primary and the general.

It’s basically impossible to run an effective campaign with that little money available for that many voters.

School board races take a back seat to gubernatorial, state legislative and county races in mid-term years, to presidential races in presidential years and to congressional races in all years. The result is that candidates can’t run real races and the outcomes are driven by factors like incumbency, the Apple Ballot and the Washington Post endorsement. Holders of all three of those advantages win MoCo school board races more than 90% of the time. Hardly anyone knows these candidates at election time but the ones who win go on to oversee a $2.8 billion school system.

Public financing has pluses and minuses and we learned a lot about it in 2018. But let’s be clear. Because of the presence of other more attention-getting (and much better funded) races on the ballot, school board candidates will probably never be able to raise adequate money in the traditional system, particularly since all of them (even the district members) are elected at large. Without change, they will continue to be heavily reliant on influential endorsements and even the alphabet(!) to get elected.

And so, if we are going to have public financing for county executive and county council elections, we should definitely have it available for school board.

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Top Seventh State Stories, May 2020

By Adam Pagnucco.

These were the top stories on Seventh State in May ranked by page views.

1. Miscreants Run Wild at Elrich Press Conference
2. MoCo is a Turnout Outlier
3. MoCo’s Nasty School Board Race, Part One
4. MoCo’s Nasty School Board Race, Part Two
5. MoCo’s Nasty School Board Race, Part Three
6. Who Signed the Anti-Austin Letter – and Who Did Not
7. How MoCo Can Balance Public Health and the Economy
8. Turnout Off to Slow Start
9. Campaign Finance Reports, School Board Primary
10. Elrich’s Hidden Tax Hike

For the most part, the leaders reflected the two big stories of the month: MoCo’s mud-splattered school board contest and the county’s low turnout in the primary. (It turns out that despite early data from the State Board of Elections, MoCo probably won’t be last in the state.) Also, the county deserves credit for posting a COVID-19 dashboard just two days after we called for one.

June promises to be another busy month. Thank you for reading Seventh State!

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Harris, Dasgupta Hold on to Leads

By Adam Pagnucco.

Moments ago, the State Board of Elections updated its vote count of MoCo’s at-large school board race. Lynne Harris and Sunil Dasgupta have been in first and second place since the first counts were released and that has not changed.

At this point, 113,429 votes have been recorded in this race and 123,568 votes have been cast for president. Bethesda Beat reported last week that the county board of elections had received “more than 271,450 ballots” as of Thursday. That number has no doubt gone up since then. That probably means at most half the ballots in MoCo have been counted as of a week after the primary election.

In the District 4 race, incumbent Shebra Evans and Steve Solomon look like they will advance to the general election.

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In-Person Vote Helps Dasgupta Over Austin

By Adam Pagnucco.

Last night’s first results in MoCo’s at-large school board race had a partial count of vote-by-mail ballots. In that count, Lynne Harris had 28.3% of the vote, followed by Sunil Dasgupta (18.4%) and Stephen Austin (16.2%). Dasgupta led Austin by 1,154 votes.

This morning, in-person votes have been posted along with the early vote-by-mail votes. Jay Guan did really well on in-person votes but not enough to break into the top three overall. Meanwhile, Dasgupta added another 186 votes to his lead over Austin. The top two candidates advance to the general election.

Tens of thousands of votes remain to be counted. Final results won’t be available for a while, so keep watching!

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First School Board Results Favor Harris

By Adam Pagnucco.

The first batch of MoCo school board results released by the State Board of Elections (SBE) at approximately 11:20 PM tonight favor former county PTA president Lynne Harris.

The results below were posted by SBE minutes ago.

This is still a very early report. The number of votes cast in the at-large school board race (54,336) is roughly half the 103,555 ballots reported as received by the county’s board of elections this morning. The tally does not include in-person voting today, provisional ballots or ballots not yet received. So far, 59,627 votes have been cast for president, indicating that many ballots have not yet been counted. (Joe Biden has received 42,203 votes from MoCo Democrats for 86% of their vote and Donald Trump has received 8,142 votes from MoCo Republicans for 77% of their vote.)

Harris was endorsed by the Washington Post. Universities at Shady Grove professor Sunil Dasgupta, currently in second place, was endorsed by the Montgomery County Education Association. Financial analyst Stephen Austin is in striking distance of Dasgupta in third place. The top two finishers in the primary advance to the general election.

Sheila Dixon, who resigned her office as Mayor of Baltimore in 2010 after being convicted by a jury of misdemeanor embezzlement, is currently leading in the city’s Democratic primary for mayor. Like MoCo’s school board race, a lot of votes remain to be counted.

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