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.
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!
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.
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!
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.
The at-large race, easily the most contentious MoCo school board contest since the early 1980s, has many overtones of race and class owing to its discussion of school boundaries. In MoCo, race and class are synonymous with geography. The county has huge differences in race, language and economics between its various subdivisions. Indeed, most of the county’s wealth is concentrated in a handful of zip codes. The county has noticeable racial segregation in its schools as well as significant inequity between them.
I broke down the geography for individual contributions to five candidates – Stephen Austin, Sunil Dasgupta, Jay Guan, Lynne Harris and Dalbin Osorio. (Pavel Sukhobok, the 4th-leading fundraiser, only has 7 contributors other than himself.) For each candidate, I tabulated the number of contributors and total contributed by individuals for each major local area in the county. These figures exclude self-funding, PACs, businesses and unions.
Two areas require definitions. The first is the Downcounty Crescent, the areas in and around the Beltway that play a disproportionate part in Democratic primary voting. The Crescent includes Bethesda, Cabin John, Glen Echo, Chevy Chase, Kensington, Takoma Park and the Silver Spring zip codes of 20901 and 20910. This area trends left – with some places going far left – and is largely responsible for sending Jamie Raskin to Congress. The second is Upcounty, which I define as including Ashton, Barnesville, Boyds, Brookeville, Clarksburg, Damascus, Dickerson, Gaithersburg, Germantown, Laytonsville, Montgomery Village, Olney, Poolesville, Sandy Spring and Spencerville. This area contains a greater proportion of moderate Democrats, Republicans and unaffiliated voters than other parts of the county.
Now let’s look at the candidates.
Almost two-thirds of Austin’s contributors and 75% of his individual funding comes from Bethesda, Potomac and North Potomac. These areas are home to some of the highest-performing high school clusters in the county. Austin is a leading critic of MCPS’s recent school boundary analysis. It makes sense that parents in these areas would be skeptical of having their kids sent to other schools.
Silver Spring, the county’s largest geographic unit, accounts for 28% of Dasgupta’s contributors and 31% of his individual fundraising. The rest of his contributions are well dispersed.
The vast majority of Guan’s contributors are east Asian so it makes sense that his geography would match the most heavily Asian high school clusters in the county (like Wootton, Churchill, Richard Montgomery and Clarksburg). Guan lives in Clarksburg so it’s no surprise that he is the runaway fundraising leader there.
Silver Spring is Harris’s biggest source of campaign funds – by far.
A huge majority of Osorio’s fundraising is coming from outside the county, with most of that coming from out of state.
Here is a summary of fundraising from four key areas in this race.
And so the contribution geography reveals the appeal of each of these candidates, at least in terms of fundraising. Austin has raised the most from Bethesda and has split Potomac with Guan. Guan has raised the most from east Asians, Rockville and Upcounty. Silver Spring and Takoma Park are going with Dasgupta and (to a lesser extent) Harris, although Dasgupta has the most geographic diversity of any candidate. Osorio needs to find more contributors who live in MoCo.
It’s a shame that the State Board of Elections won’t be releasing precinct-level data in the primary because then we could see if votes follow money. Let’s hope that we can get precinct results in the general election.
It’s common for elected officials to endorse candidates in school board races. What’s decidedly uncommon is for elected officials to issue anti-endorsements – in essence, telling voters NOT to vote for a candidate. But that’s what just happened minutes ago, as a collection of MoCo county officials and state lawmakers sent an open letter opposing a school board candidate to Maryland Matters.
Folks, just when you think you have seen it all – you have not!
The target of these elected officials is first-time school board candidate Stephen Austin, who is running for an open at-large seat. Austin says on his website that he is “committed to keeping kids in neighborhood schools” and has opposed MCPS’s school boundary analysis. Representatives of One Montgomery attacked him in Maryland Matters for allegedly “fomenting fear and division” over school boundaries, an accusation he has denied. A large group of elected officials are now urging voters to reject him, writing, “There are good choices to represent all perspectives in the upcoming race for Board of Education, At-Large. Stephen Austin is not one of them.”
Many elected officials have signed the letter but many have not. Here is the list of signers and non-signers.
County Officials Who Signed
County Executive Marc Elrich Council Member Gabe Albornoz (At-Large) Council Member Tom Hucker (D-5) Council Member Will Jawando (At-Large) Council Member Nancy Navarro (D-4) Council Member Craig Rice (D-2) Council Member Hans Riemer (At-Large)
Senator Cheryl Kagan (D-17) Senator Nancy King (D-39) Senator Ben Kramer (D-19) Senator Will Smith (D-20)
State Senators Who Did Not Sign
Senator Brian Feldman (D-15) Senator Susan Lee (D-16) Senator Jeff Waldstreicher (D-18) Senator Craig Zucker (D-14)
Delegates Who Signed
Delegate Lorig Charkoudian (D-20) Delegate Charlotte Crutchfield (D-19) Delegate Bonnie Cullison (D-19) Delegate Lesley Lopez (D-39) Delegate Eric Luedtke (D-14) Delegate David Moon (D-20) Delegate Kirill Reznik (D-39) Delegate Vaughn Stewart (D-19)
Delegates Who Did Not Sign
Delegate Gabe Acevero (D-39) Delegate Kumar Barve (D-17) Delegate Al Carr (D-18) Delegate Kathleen Dumais (D-15) Delegate David Fraser-Hidalgo (D-15) Delegate Jim Gilchrist (D-17) Delegate Anne Kaiser (D-14) Delegate Ariana Kelly (D-16) Delegate Marc Korman (D-16) Delegate Sara Love (D-16) Delegate Julie Palakovich Carr (D-17) Delegate Lily Qi (D-15) Delegate Pam Queen (D-14) Delegate Emily Shetty (D-18) Delegate Jared Solomon (D-18) Delegate Jheanelle Wilkins (D-20)
It’s noteworthy that not a single state legislator from Districts 15, 16 and 18 signed the letter. These districts are home to the wealthiest neighborhoods in the county and have the highest achieving high school clusters. Austin lives in Bethesda and has raised most of his campaign funds from these areas. (More to come on that tomorrow.) These facts are probably not aligned in coincidence.
The second round of campaign finance reports covering contributions and expenditures in the school board race were due yesterday. They cover campaign activity through May 17 and are the last reports to be released before the June 2 primary. The table below presents cumulative totals combining the first and second reports for all candidates. Those with data marked “NA” filed affidavits stating that their campaigns did not collect or spend more than $1,000 for the reporting period.
In the at-large race, Jay Guan is the leader with $27,443 raised, followed by Sunil Dasgupta ($22,760) and Stephen Austin ($20,730). Lynne Harris, who was endorsed by the Washington Post, ranks 6th with $7,456 raised. The district races were quiet.
These are small amounts of money compared to county executive, county council and state legislative races, but Guan, Dasgupta and Austin have all done pretty well for school board candidates. Here is how their totals compare to other (relatively) well-financed school board candidacies in the primary over the last decade.
So far, the single largest expenditure by any candidate in the race is Guan’s mailing of a postcard in early May, which cost $13,861. However, the Maryland State Education Association, which has endorsed Dasgupta, sent out a glossy mailer on his behalf shortly afterwards. That mailer’s cost is not available from campaign finance records but almost certainly exceeds the cost of Guan’s mailer.
Facebook’s political ad tracker shows that Dasgupta has spent more money on Facebook ads than the rest of the at-large field combined.
So far, the most expensive Facebook ad in the race has been this one by Dasgupta which promoted some of his endorsements.
The second most expensive Facebook ad was this one by Austin attacking Harris. Austin may be calculating that if he can knock out Harris, he will enter an insider vs outsider general election against Dasgupta.
Combining his own spending with the independent expenditures of the teachers union, Dasgupta may be running the most vigorous campaign overall. Harris’s money problems are impeding her ability to publicize the Post endorsement, which should worry her supporters. Austin has done well to keep pace financially with Dasgupta despite the latter’s endorsement by multiple unions and numerous elected officials. The big question is what Austin plans to do with his $13,048 cash balance. If he had spent it on Facebook ads, he would easily have outspent Dasgupta. Either he is saving it for a last push or he is banking some money for the general election.
Following is a list of the most prominent contributors to Austin, Dasgupta, Guan and Harris.
Sunil Dasgupta MSEA Fund for Children and Public Education: $3,500 (Note: this is the state teachers union. The county teachers union has endorsed Dasgupta.) SEIU Local 500: $1,000 (Note: this union represents support staff in MCPS and has endorsed Dasgupta.) Sidney Katz, Montgomery County Council Member: $250 Eric Luedtke, Delegate: $250 Jeffrey Slavin, Mayor, Town of Somerset: $250 Casey Anderson, Chair, Planning Board: $100 Aruna Miller, Former Delegate: $100 Mark Pierzchala, Council Member, City of Rockville: $100 Steve Silverman, Former Montgomery County Council Member: $100 Vaughn Stewart, Delegate: $100 Partap Verma, Planning Board Member: $100 Neil Harris, Council Member, City of Gaithersburg: $50 Dan Reed, Author, Just Up the Pike: $50 Hans Riemer, Montgomery County Council Member: $50
Jay Guan Lily Qi, Delegate: $500
Lynne Harris Diana Conway, President, Women’s Democratic Club: $300 Marc Elrich, Montgomery County Executive: $100 Tom Hucker, Montgomery County Council Member: $100 Jill Ortman-Fouse, Former School Board Member: $100 Al Carr, Delegate: $50
MCPS’s contested boundary analysis has dominated MoCo’s nasty school board race. It’s an issue definitely worthy of discussion, but it’s not the only one. Here are a few other issues that the school board candidates should address.
How can the Weast coalition be rebuilt?
Former MCPS Superintendent Jerry Weast, who ruled the schools from 1999 through 2011, was many things: a bureaucratic empire builder, a ruthless field general, a hardened wielder of data and much more. He was also one of the greatest coalition builders in the history of MoCo. Weast knew that his initiatives cost money and he knew he needed allies to get it. His talents for horse-trading, cooptation, message-building and political head-knocking served him well. He reached an understanding with MCPS’s stakeholders that they could participate in crafting his budgets, but in return, they had to stick together against the common enemy: elected officials with funding authority. When budget time came, those who thought about going against Weast’s budget not only had to deal with Weast himself and his ministry of propaganda; they also had to fight the county employee unions, the PTAs and even the Washington Post’s editorial page (which was firmly pro-Weast). Weast’s power was so feared that most of the time, he didn’t even have to fight – he simply cut deals with chastened politicians who moved on to easier prey.
These guys want to know who will get the band back together.
The recent history of the county’s local per pupil funding demonstrates the consequences of the declining power of school advocates. The chart below shows local per pupil contributions to MCPS – in other words, the amount of local dollars the county appropriated per student, which excludes other sources of money (like state and federal aid). The green line shows nominal dollars while the red line shows real 2020 dollars (which have been adjusted for inflation).
In nominal dollars, the county’s local per pupil contribution peaked at $11,249 in FY09. It was then cut for three straight years and frozen for four straight years until it began increasing in FY17. The county’s per pupil contribution in FY20 ($10,923) is 2.9% below its FY09 peak.
When adjusting for inflation, the story becomes much worse. In 2020 dollars, the FY09 peak was $13,508. By FY20, the local per pupil contribution had fallen to 19.1% below the peak. During this period, the percentage of students receiving ESOL services and free and reduced price meals rose continuously, meaning that needs were increasing as local money per student was not keeping pace with inflation. This is the number one financial challenge faced by MCPS, at least prior to the era of COVID-19.
The school system needs money, and in a political context, extracting money requires power. School board candidates should lay out how they intend to rebuild and unify MCPS’s advocate community. The alternative is to go hat-in-hand to county funders just as one of the worst budget crises in county history erupts – a crisis from which MCPS will not be immune.
What happens when the next school year starts?
MCPS will likely continue online learning for the rest of this school year. But no one knows what will happen when the next school year begins. The options are many and all of them have drawbacks. How would school board candidates balance learning, resources and the health of students, school employees and families?
How can MCPS get more bang for its buck in the capital budget?
With enrollment continuing to grow and capital money tight (at best), MCPS will have to get more bang for its buck with whatever capital dollars it can acquire. School board candidates should be prepared to discuss how MCPS can best do that.
What is going on in the central office?
In FY17, MCPS spent $42,850,477 on administration spending. (This category, defined as Category 1 by the state, includes the central office but not school-based administration like principals.) The FY20 approved budget contains $56,084,530 in administration spending, a 31% increase. Over the same period, MCPS’s grand total spending went up from $2,426,611,128 to $2,680,574,773, an increase of 10%. Why has administration spending grown three times as fast as overall school spending? School board candidates should be asking that question and vowing to get answers.
Editor’s Note: MCPS has replied that nearly $9 million of the increase is due to replacing business systems. You can see their response here.
A student speaks about an issue.
Finally, the following was written by my kid, who is a 5th grade MCPS student. Candidates, pay heed as this guy is a future voter!
School lunches have been a problem for a really long time in MCPS, at least in my school. Most of the food that my school provides during our lunch time is pretty low quality. A lot of the food that my school serves is usually very sugary and unhealthy which shouldn’t be the case because there are students who eat that food 5 days a week which I assume is not good for our stomachs. Besides the lunches that students can bring from home, keep in mind that school lunches are the only type of food that is supposed to replenish our energy to keep us active throughout the day. In my opinion all types of students deserve a good lunch, because all of us are working very hard throughout the day. But if some students have to eat unhealthy food as the only source of energy to get them through the day, that is a problem. Point being, please do whatever is necessary to provide healthier lunches for the kids who need them.
PS: Even though I always bring lunch from home, the pizza that my school serves for lunch is straight up kind of disgusting.
If anything is worse than a nasty election, it’s nasty food. No matter how one feels about the boundary analysis, hopefully we can agree on that!
In addition to being one of MoCo’s nastiest races of all time, this year’s school board election is arguably the strangest ever. Consider a list of typical election activities that are hampered or altogether prohibited by the COVID-19 lockdown.
Door knocking – Fuhgeddaboutit.
In-person campaign coffees and fundraisers – Fuhgeddaboutit.
Lit handouts at Metro stations – Fuhgeddaboutit.
Lit drops – It’s not clear if this counts as essential travel. It’s also not clear if this will creep out voters.
Campaign forums – They are not possible to do in person. There are opportunities to do these online but there will be far fewer of them than in a regular cycle.
Poll coverage – Fuhgeddaboutit!!
So what’s left? No candidate currently has the money to do serious mail. Blast emails are possible, but if anyone has an email list, I’m not on it. (For the record, I have been added to TONS of political email lists!) Signs have been distributed along with the usual instances of illegal placement. Bethesda Beat is covered with school board ads. (Steve Hull wins every election!) Social media ads are cost effective and several candidates have used them, but they can’t replace all of the other campaign tools that have been knocked out by the virus. Then there is the word of mouth being circulated by supporters of one candidate or another, but to see it, you have to be connected to the partisans. The HUGE majority of voters are not in these bubbles.
Let’s remember that this is a presidential primary and all county voters with all party affiliations can vote. In the 2016 primary, 183,479 people voted in MoCo’s at-large school board race. That far exceeds the number who vote in mid-term Democratic primaries for governor, county executive and county council at-large, races which have much more financing than school board contests. The two candidates who emerged from the 2016 primary had more than 50,000 votes each. This year’s winning number could be higher if the all-mail election encourages higher turnout as it did in Rockville and also because of national factors.
Given all of these limitations, you would have to be crazy to be a campaign manager in this race!
That said, there are certain factors that could make a difference.
The Apple Ballot
The Montgomery County Education Association (MCEA) has an excellent record of getting its endorsed school board candidates through primaries. MCEA’s choice this year is Universities at Shady Grove professor Sunil Dasgupta, who proudly puts the Apple Ballot front and center on his website. Historically, the union’s most effective tactic has been distribution of Apple Ballots at voting precincts, but that is now impossible due to COVID-19 restrictions and the state’s transition to a mostly mail election. The teachers can still use social media and they have sent at least one mailer promoting their candidate. One note of caution comes from February 2008, when an ice storm shut down MCEA’s poll coverage, resulting in a rare defeat for its candidate in a primary.
The Washington Post
Along with the Apple Ballot, the Post’s endorsement is one of the top two in school board races and has a great record of helping candidates win. At first it seemed the Post was going to sit out the primary (as it has done before), but over the weekend, the newspaper endorsed former PTA president Lynne Harris. This is a huge problem for anti-boundary analysis leader Stephen Austin, who now faces one candidate with the Apple, another one with the Post and a primary from which only two candidates will emerge. One question: with Harris’s lack of funding and the Post endorsement coming so late, will she have the time and bandwidth to capitalize on it?
Stephen Austin’s Facebook Group
Say what you will about Austin and his group, but his page is larger than any other MCPS-related site that could play a part in this election. Consider these Facebook page statistics at this writing.
None of the candidates’ pages are large enough to have any organic effect on the election though they can be used for ads. But through his “neighbors for local schools” page, Austin can reach out to roughly 8,000 people, an advantage that no other candidate has. In an election with no poll coverage by the Apple Ballot, no ground-level campaigning and no serious money for any candidate, how big of an advantage is this?
One Montgomery’s Attack Piece
The brutal One Montgomery attack piece in Maryland Matters linking Austin to Trump supporters and anti-LGBTQ activists has gotten a lot of attention on his critics’ pages. But has it really penetrated beyond the progressive circles that were unlikely to vote for Austin anyway? For this piece to be truly effective, someone has to place a four- or five-digit social media ad buy to push it out to the general public. Otherwise it will be just one more thing to argue about for the relative handful of folks inside the bubble.
However these factors mix, there are two likely scenarios. If Dasgupta and Harris emerge from the primary, this will turn into a traditional Apple vs Post race. But if Austin breaks through to claim one of the primary spots, this will be more insider vs outsider with school boundaries front and center. Jay Guan, the fundraising leader who has mailed a postcard, may also have a chance.
There is more to an election than tactics; there is also policy at stake. Part Three will conclude with a few issues that have been overshadowed by the boundary analysis war but nevertheless warrant attention from the candidates.