Tag Archives: School Board

Where Are They Getting Their Money?

By Adam Pagnucco.

Recently, I posted totals raised and spent by candidates for school board in the primary. Today, let’s look at the geography of contributions in the at-large race.

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.

Stephen Austin

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.

Sunil Dasgupta

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.

Jay Guan

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.

Lynne Harris

Silver Spring is Harris’s biggest source of campaign funds – by far.

Dalbin Osorio

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.

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Who Signed the Anti-Austin Letter – and Who Did Not

By Adam Pagnucco.

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)

County Officials Who Did Not Sign

Council Member Andrew Friedson (D-1)
Council Member Evan Glass (At-Large) – Note: Glass endorsed Lynne Harris.
Council Member Sidney Katz (D-3) – Note: Katz endorsed Sunil Dasgupta.

State Senators Who Signed

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.

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Campaign Finance Reports, School Board Primary

By Adam Pagnucco.

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.

Stephen Austin
Coalition for Better Montgomery PAC: $3,000 (Note: this contribution was criticized by One Montgomery, which earned a response from Austin.)
Alexander Bush, Chairman, Montgomery County Republican Party: $500
Pete Fosselman, Former Mayor, Town of Kensington: $100

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

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MoCo’s Nasty School Board Race, Part Three

By Adam Pagnucco.

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.

The Great Recession killed the Weast coalition and it has not been rebuilt. The relationship between current MCPS management and the unions is particularly problematic. In the Weast era, the unions completed contract negotiations in the fall, but as of this writing, none of them have yet finalized new collective bargaining agreements with MCPS.

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?

MCPS enrollment has been growing rapidly for a decade, but at the moment, the county’s capital budget is shrinking. MCPS’s capital budget has done better than some other programs (especially transportation), but in real dollar terms, it peaked in FY17. The system could be in for cuts early next year because two large sources of school construction funding – recordation tax premiums and impact taxes – are likely to be hit hard by the COVID-19 recession. The General Assembly passed a large expansion of state school construction funding in March but, because it was tied to the Kirwan funding bill vetoed by Governor Larry Hogan, that money is on hold for now.

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!

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MoCo’s Nasty School Board Race, Part Two

By Adam Pagnucco.

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.

Montgomery County MD Neighbors for Local Schools (Austin’s group): 8,033 members
Montgomery County Education Association: 4,006 followers
Montgomery County Council of PTAs: 1,573 followers
SEIU Local 500 (an endorser of Dasgupta): 1,154 followers
One Montgomery (favors school equity, opposes Austin): 846 followers
Sunil Dasgupta’s campaign page: 595 followers
Stephen Austin’s campaign group: 358 members
Lynne Harris’s campaign page: 275 followers
Jay Guan’s campaign page: 185 followers

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.

The Alphabet

Don’t laugh, but in down-ballot, under-the-radar races, being near or at the top of the ballot can get a candidate a few extra points. Research of varying quality has found this to be the case in Danish local and regional elections, Vancouver local elections, California state elections, California city council and school board elections, Ohio county elections and British local council elections. Austin will be listed second on the ballot. Will that matter?

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.

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Post Endorses Harris and Evans for School Board

By Adam Pagnucco.

The Washington Post has endorsed Lynne Harris and Shebra Evans for school board. Evans is an incumbent running for reelection in District 4. Harris is a former PTA president running for an open at-large seat in a strongly contested and controversy-packed race.

The Post and the Apple Ballot are hugely influential in school board elections. Because Universities at Shady Grove professor Sunil Dasgupta already has the Apple, it will be hard (but not impossible) for candidates other than Harris and Dasgupta to make it out of the at-large primary.

I will have a lot more to say about this soon.

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MoCo’s Nasty School Board Race, Part One

By Adam Pagnucco.

Negative campaigning has a long and brutal history in Montgomery County but this year’s school board election is emerging as one of the most contentious contests in decades. The arguments contain echoes of the titanic school board election battles of the early 1980s, in which a conservative faction led by Marian Greenblatt was eventually toppled. Then as now, race, school boundaries, accusations of busing and the shadow of national politics mixed in a bubbling witches’ brew that no cauldron could hold. There is nothing new here. Rather, skeletons emerge from the grave to refight battles that seem as eternal as they are ancient.

The immediate impetus of the current dispute is a change made to MCPS’s facility planning policy in September 2018. Prior to the change, four factors were weighted equally in picking sites for new schools and changing school boundaries: demographic characteristics of student population, geography, stability of school assignments over time and facility utilization. The new policy was revised to contain this sentence on demographics: “Options should especially strive to create a diverse student body in each of the affected schools in alignment with Board Policy ACD, Quality Integrated Education.” Jill Ortman-Fouse, who at that time was on the school board and helped lead the effort to change the policy, justified it by saying, “Diversity matters. Let’s weight that a little bit more.” MCPS followed up by hiring a contractor to study school boundaries and implementing a redistricting in Germantown and Clarksburg that spawned a lawsuit.

Now supporters and opponents of the new facilities policy and the boundary analysis are at war. The leader of the opposition is Stephen Austin, a newcomer to MoCo politics who set up a Facebook group last winter that now has almost 8,000 members. It’s unusual in the county for such a large group to form so quickly without external organization and funding, but schools are a hot issue here for folks with all kinds of perspectives. The other side is a group of MCPS activists favoring the boundary analysis, many of whom have been active on school issues for a long time. Their spiritual leader is Ortman-Fouse, who has made diversity her signature issue both during and after her tenure on the school board. Austin is one of 13 candidates running for an at-large school board seat in a field with varying views on school boundaries. Strong feelings run high on both sides.

My personal sympathies lie with those who favor diverse schools. My upstate New York elementary school was roughly 90% white. When I moved to MoCo, I deliberately chose to live near a diverse public elementary school so that my kid could benefit from being around others with different races, cultures and life experiences. My choice paid off in a BIG way. My kid has experienced both diversity and superb academic instruction at the same time. He is much better prepared for the modern world than I was at his age. So I won’t be voting for any candidate who opposes diversity.

But there is more going on here than just that one issue.

I read the posts in Austin’s Facebook group almost every day. There are statements on there with which I disagree. There is some nastiness directed at the other side (and the press). But there are also participants who express a mixture of curiosity, concern and skepticism. Some distrust what they see as a centralized school bureaucracy that does not communicate very well. (This is one sentiment they share with some on the other side!) There are plenty of folks there who are not white. There has also been discussion of issues other than the boundary analysis. It’s a more complicated place than Austin’s opponents might admit. However, some of the blame for that goes to the moderators who have kicked out people who disagree, causing the exiles to assume the worst since they can’t view the content themselves. Inflammatory tidbits sometimes leak anyway.

I’m not all that worried about the pugilists in the ring. In politics, anyone who throws a punch should be ready to take a punch. But I do wonder about the people in Austin’s group, as well as on other social media threads, who read all of this material and say nothing. What are they thinking? I bet more than a few believe there is no point in saying anything because if they do, and if they vary from the orthodoxy of either side, they will be subject to bitter, public personal attacks. How many folks who have something to contribute will never run for school board or get involved with school issues at all for fear of being hurled into the mud?

Here is a great irony. Austin’s supporters believe that the school board does not do enough to oversee or challenge MCPS management – a view shared by some on the left. It’s a common perception that some school board members get assimilated into the system after winning office (with the notable exception of the 2015 revolt against then-Superintendent Josh Starr). Bereft of a sizeable, independent staff of analysts reporting exclusively to them, the board risks being at the mercy of a management that can control information and set tight boundaries for policy decisions. One school board member who resisted that tendency was none other than Ortman-Fouse, who never backed down from management, regularly demanded (and released) data and engaged in actual constituent service – just like elected officials are supposed to do. Put aside their ideological disagreements and Ortman-Fouse could provide a model of independent-minded school board service that even Austin and his folks could appreciate were it not for their mutual loathing.

At this point, tribal politics has taken over this race. Each tribe fears what the other one will do if it wins. Non-tribe members are barely acknowledged even though at least 99% of the county has no idea what is going on in this election. The disengagement of so many voters and the sheer oddities of present times make this a hard race to divine.

In Part Two, I’ll assess the tactical environment in what might be MoCo’s strangest election ever.

And in Part Three, I’ll talk about a few issues that have been largely undiscussed so far but collectively will determine at least as much of MCPS’s future as any boundary analysis.

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Three Keys to School Board Races

By Adam Pagnucco.

Make no mistake: running for school board is TOUGH.  The MoCo school board has two at-large seats, five district seats and one seat elected by MCPS students.  Of the seven non-student seats, all of them – at-large and district – are subject to voting by the entire county electorate.  Three seats – one of the at-large seats plus Districts 2 and 4 – hold elections in presidential years, which attract tons more voters than gubernatorial years when elections for other state and county offices are held.  Since the school board seats are non-partisan, both primaries and generals can be real competitions.  Finally, Republicans, unaffiliated and third party voters can vote in school board primaries as well as generals.  So school board candidates have to communicate with waaaaaay more voters than county-level and state legislative candidates and they have a lot less money to do that.

Dear readers, think about all of the above before you decide to run for school board!

And so these races are distinguished by little money, large electorates and woefully inadequate press attention.  That’s why three factors are almost always key to deciding them.  They are:

1.  Incumbency.  This is an important advantage in most elections.  Incumbents have opportunities to learn the issues, assemble records, build relationships and accumulate name recognition.  School board races are no exception.

2.  The Apple Ballot.  The Montgomery County Education Association (MCEA) has long had the most advanced political program of any group that participates in MoCo elections.  Its centerpiece is the mighty Apple Ballot, an apple-shaped endorsement flyer that is widely distributed at election time.  Few if any groups care more about school board elections than MCEA since board members set policy, hire the superintendent and approve collective bargaining agreements.

A version of the Apple Ballot from 2006.  Note the placement of school board candidates at the top.

3.  The Washington Post endorsement.  The Post regularly endorses in school board races and the newspaper has a reach that extends beyond traditional Democratic voting constituencies.  The Post is also occasionally critical of MCEA although it sometimes supports the same candidates as the teachers.

Without the benefit of significant resources to communicate with vast numbers of voters, school board candidates with one or more of the above advantages are heavily dependent on them to differentiate themselves from the pack.  That’s why while all of the above advantages matter in any race, they may be especially critical to candidates for school board.

The table below shows candidates in contested school board races from 2006 through 2018 and the distribution of incumbency, the Apple Ballot and the Post endorsement.  In some cases, the primary was uncontested because there were two or fewer candidates while the general was contested.

A casual glance demonstrates the value of incumbency, the Apple and the Post endorsement but let’s be more explicit.  The table below shows win rates for all three, as well as combinations of some or all of them.

In every tabulation, candidates holding at least one of the above three advantages win at least 75% of the time.  Holders of more than one advantage often win more than 90% of the time.  Candidates holding both the Apple and the Post, whether or not they are incumbents, are nearly a lock.  The one recent exception was in 2016, when at-large incumbent Phil Kauffman had both the Apple and the Post and was still defeated by former Paint Branch High School Principal Jeanette Dixon.  In that race, Kauffman earned the Apple Ballot after the primary and the Post did not endorse him until October, possibly weakening the value of those endorsements.

These three factors don’t explain everything, but they explain a lot.  While it’s possible to win without any of these advantages, as Dixon demonstrated, it’s very difficult.  Keep an eye on these keys as this year’s school board races move forward.

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Founder of Failed DC Charter School Enters Board of Education Race

Republican Gwendolyn Love Kimbrough is one of five candidates to have filed for the at-large Montgomery County School Board seat held by incumbent Phil Kaufman, who is seeking reelection. According to the Washington Post, Kimbrough founded a special education charter closed by the DC School Board in 2006:

D.C. school board members said last night that they will immediately take over the Jos-Arz Therapeutic Public Charter School after school leaders failed to introduce required improvements — including obtaining accreditation and providing a proper curriculum — at the special education facility. . . .

Despite the school’s early support from the council, Jos-Arz founders Rollie and Gwendolyn Kimbrough became embroiled in a longstanding dispute with the school board.

School board President Peggy Cooper Cafritz became suspicious of what she considered unusually high rent payments from the school to the nonprofit organization that owned the building and on whose board Rollie Kimbrough served. She also complained about contracts the school awarded to Gwendolyn Kimbrough’s company, American Therapeutic Services.

The Kimbroughs asserted that Cafritz and the school board sabotaged Jos-Arz by failing to refer the required number of special needs students that the school needed to survive. After losing thousands of dollars, Gwendolyn Kimbrough left her position as the school’s executive director in 2003.

As the operator of a charter school, Kimbrough has an unusual background for someone who wants to oversee MCPS. The failure of the charter school she founded does not bode well if she wants to be an effective advocate for new charters in Montgomery.

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Common Cause on Barclay Scandal

The following is a press release from Common Cause MD:

Common Cause Maryland calls for greater oversight of School Board expenditures

(Annapolis) – With two breaking stories in one week regarding expenditures by School Board members across Maryland, Common Cause Maryland calls for greater oversight and clearer policies by school boards regarding the use of taxpayer funds.

In Montgomery County, a Public Information Act discovered that school board member Chris Barclay made personal charges to the county-funded credit card. The documents also revealed meal expenses that did not follow school board procedures for authorization[1]. In Wicomico County, state auditors found school board members purchased gift cards using county credit cards, as well as several purchases made at a produce market owned by a school board member, raising questions of conflict of interest[2].

“These discoveries raise questions about both the strength of expenditure policies and the implementation of those policies,” said Jennifer Bevan-Dangel, Executive Director of Common Cause Maryland.  “School boards have to make the best use of very limited dollars. Lunches, gift cards, and personal charges on the county card hurt public trust and hurt the students that the board is supposed to serve.”

Common Cause calls on county School Boards to evaluate their spending policies and make sure they provide clear oversight for member expenditures and reimbursements. School boards should consider revoking credit cards and moving to a reimbursement system, as many county governments (including Montgomery County) have done.

Common Cause Maryland also noted the importance of the public information act in bringing these stories to light.

“Public access to government expenditures is a fundamental tool to ensure that officials are held to the highest standards. The Montgomery County story is a clear example of the importance of a well-functioning public information act that gives the public access to the information they need.”

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Contact: Jennifer Bevan-Dangel, 410-303-7954, jbd@commoncause.org

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