Free-For-All, which called into question the county’s strategy for dealing with the police department, was the runaway leader this month. That suggests that there is considerable unease about the county’s approach to MCPD which goes far beyond the groups the county hears from regularly. School board candidate Lynne Harris’s criticism of MCEA, for which she later apologized, produced a flood of site traffic. The two posts about circuit court judge candidate Marylin Pierre were circulated by her opponents on the sitting judge slate. The rest of the posts were mostly about MoCo’s charter amendments, on which voting has already begun.
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.
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.
Guest column by Dr. Sunil Dasgupta, Candidate for Montgomery County Board of Education At-Large.
MCPS’s decision to start the 45 day clock on potentially reopening school buildings is premature. While MCPS should absolutely be working collaboratively with teachers, staff, families, and students on a reopening plan, starting the clock before answering some basic questions is disruptive and anxiety-producing for everyone involved.
To calm anxieties and provide a clear path forward, MCPS leadership should focus on three goals in the near term. The first goal should be clear communication with all stakeholders. The second goal should be to meet student needs in the immediate context of online learning. And the third goal should be to collaboratively develop a safe reopening plan with employees, families, and students.
Clear communication with the public has been MCPS’ biggest shortcoming during the pandemic. We are only four weeks into the first quarter, so it is unclear why MCPS is making an announcement on a 45 day timeline that could place some students and staff back in buildings in early November, after announcing in July that the first semester would be online-only.
In his July announcement regarding the fall semester, MCPS Superintendent Dr. Jack Smith wrote, “the safest choice for our district is to remain in a virtual-only instructional model through the first semester—January 29, 2021; or until state and local health officials determine conditions in our county allow for students to return safely after the first semester.” MCPS should stick to its previous timeline in order to ensure student and staff safety, and to provide desperately needed clarity for all stakeholders.
Meeting Students’ Immediate Needs
MCPS has performed much better in this area, but there are still students who need additional resources and support to make online learning as productive as possible. Many students in certain zip codes still lack access to high-speed internet and functioning Chromebooks. MCPS leadership and local staff are focused on this issue, and they should continue to reach out in every way possible to get these students and families connected to the learning that is taking place online.
MCPS recognizes that student mental health is suffering during the pandemic and is rightly focused on providing additional support to students and staff. And the school system continues to provide meals to thousands of students on a weekly basis.
A Collaborative Plan for a Safe Reopening
While teachers and staff are doing an amazing job considering the circumstances, not every student’s needs can be met through online instruction. Unfortunately, MCPS continues to persist with poorly designed surveys to gauge what families and staff want, hindering our ability to craft a reopening plan that fits the situation.
To honor individual choices of families and employees, MCPS needs better data. Rather than running poorly-designed surveys, there needs to be a census of every student and every staff member. We should ask the question, “When do you want to return,” and offer a menu of conditions to choose from. The census could be tied to student and employee dashboards, so everyone must answer before they can proceed with schoolwork. Importantly, respondents should have the ability to log back in and change their minds by picking a reason from a menu. Rather than an artificial 45 day timer, this evolving census data should help drive decisions to return.
The MCPS employee associations must be at the table contributing to the discussion on safety precautions, equipment and materials, protocols for testing, tracing, and quarantining, medical leave, substitution, and the many transitions between online and in-person delivery of instruction. There is also considerable work to be done to assess infrastructure – especially school building ventilation – and to identify safe teaching spaces. Teachers and staff must be involved in every step of the planning process.
This difficult moment requires steady leadership, deep collaboration, and clear communication. We should be squarely focused on how to safely meet the needs of all students. By all means, we should be planning how and when to reopen, but setting an artificial timer is not going to bring clarity. It’s a recipe for confusion and further anxiety.
The post about a restaurant not requiring face masks was one of the top five most-read stories in the history of this blog. (That puts some perspective on the relative importance of politics!) Marilyn Balcombe and Sunil Dasgupta deserve congratulations for their excellent and widely read guest posts. Aside from those, the top posts generally reflect the top two stories of the month: MCPS’s reopening decision and the county’s ethics-challenged Chief Administrative Officer Andrew Kleine.
By Sunil Dasgupta, candidate for Montgomery County Board of Education, At-large.
Students, families, and school staff are waiting anxiously as MCPS debates what school will look like in the fall. Who will return to school buildings, and when? How will transportation work? Will students and staff be able to choose virtual learning and instruction? There are infinite questions and no great options.
Plan A for the fall was to bring all students back into classrooms. Under normal circumstances, this would of course be the optimal plan, and the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) argued for the physical presence of students in schools as necessary for child development. But CDC’s 6-feet social distancing guidance requires each student and teacher have 36 sq ft of exclusive space while in school. Even using Parks and Recreation facilities, tented outdoors classrooms, or small self-contained pods, MCPS cannot make full time in-person instruction possible for all students.
Plan B is the hybrid model—part in-person and part online with shift attendance—which is reflected in the draft plan that MCPS released this week. This plan attempts to bring students and staff back into buildings while meeting CDC guidelines, but it raises questions about safety, risk, and reward. One high school English teacher pointed out that, under the draft plan, he would meet with his students in-person only six times in the fall. The potential benefit of the hybrid model does not seem worth the risk, and with a substantial number of students and staff opting for online instruction, a great deal of the burden of carrying forward instruction would remain online.
That leaves us with Plan C: online, virtual, distance learning only, at least for the fall semester. The last few months have shown that it is very difficult to provide high-quality distance learning. Even in a large, wealthy jurisdiction like Montgomery County, we see noticeable gaps in access, engagement, and continuity of learning. While online learning has been more manageable and accessible for some, many families are reporting confusion over scheduling, technology problems, lack of student engagement, and absence of learning. When combined with serious equity and access issues, the results have been far from satisfactory.
None of the plans are perfect. But only one plan is safe: Plan C. MCPS should stick with distance learning for the fall semester, and the school system should make the announcement as soon as possible so we can create the best Plan C possible.
We can provide additional training for teachers, set higher expectations for students, and create more engaging curricula. We can make concrete plans for technology troubleshooting and meeting the needs of students with special learning needs and English Language Learners. And we can give families time to plan for how to manage life once classes resume.
But we can only begin preparing for more equitable, better organized, and ultimately more powerful online learning experiences for our young people once the school system makes the call to go with the imperfect, yet safe Plan C. Waiting longer risks losing the vital prep and training time needed to get this right.
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.
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