As a service to readers, The Business Monthly has asked each Howard County Board of Education candidate to answer a short questionnaire for a local voters’ guide.

Eleven candidates are running in the April primary for three open seats on the Howard County Board of Education. Candidates were asked three questions:

1. Achieve Inc. identified closing the achievement gap as a priority in its 2002 report “Aiming Higher: The Next Decade of Education Reform in Maryland.” Since then, the school system has rolled out new initiatives targeting this gap every year; it remains an issue of discussion nearly 20 years later. Have we made any meaningful progress in that time? What is your view on how our education system can make more significant progress in closing the achievement gap?

2. What is your view on complaints that the school system and Board of Education have been deficient in communicating openly with parents and other stakeholders and have not been sharing public information requested by residents? Do you think this is a real issue, and do you think any changes are necessary in the way the school system and the Board of Education interact with and respond to parents and county residents?

3. Aside from these issues, what are the three biggest priorities you feel the School Board should focus on?

Corey Andrews

No response received, multiple attempts to contact the candidate were unsuccessful.

Marcelino Bedolla

1. The closing of the achievement gap between white, African American and Hispanic students have a high priority for me, as well as the gap between the special needs students and non-special needs students. The trend for the main demographic groups can be readily found, but to find the trend for special needs students [is] a bit harder. Granted, there are factors involved which can’t be controlled, but that should not prevent us from tracking and publishing the data — data that can be analyzed to identify whether added resources are needed and where. I think the achievement gap will never be closed, but we can narrow it so that it becomes statistically insignificant. And efforts to reach that point begin at the elementary school level, where kids learn the skills need to insure success at the next grade level.

2. Communication, or transparency, by the Board of Education and the school system or lack thereof, with the community and stakeholders has been deficient for many years; it is not a new phenomenon. It is a sad commentary that it took a health issue, mold, to bring this deficiency into the light of day. The issue is alive; it’s a cancer that is in the relationship between the board, the school system and the community. And like cancer, something must be cut out so the relationship can heal. I am sad to say that new blood is needed on the Board of Education. And that transfusion begins with this election. I see no other way.

3. I. Cyber bullying will demand attention from the board in the next year or so. More needs to be done to sensitize students to the problem and potential ramifications for both the instigator and the victim. As a board member I will push for more training for staff on how to recognize signs of bullying. We’ve already seen one too many suicides [and] I will work to bring this problem to the forefront.

II. The relationship between the board and the superintendent has to be examined and evaluated. The current perception regards the board as being a rubber stamp for whatever the superintendent proposes. The new board will have a huge task in changing this perception and I will work to make that relationship a more collaborative one.

III. Transparency in its decisions must be improved with the community and stakeholders by both the board and the school system. As a new board member, I will work to improve communications with the community and stakeholders.

Kirsten Coombs

1. HCPSS gave data to the African-American community that indicated suspension rates are seven times higher than those of Asian and white students for the same infraction. When children are suspended, they miss valuable classroom time. When they return, they have to make up work, but they’ve already lost educator interaction. As a board member, I will work with educators, parents and interested stakeholders to explore restorative justice, diversity training for educators and administrators and parental outreach. I will also advocate for increasing the reporting frequency of this information. After the video of the Mt. Hebron student’s racist views went public, one student requested an increase in the offerings of diverse humanities’ courses for high schools. If students are more engaged in a class, they will perform better, and that should be considered.

2. I believe the system wants to convey a sense of competency and success. When issues of mold, poor test scores, racist videos, etc. occur, the majority of the board and superintendent get very defensive. A better response would be, “Here’s a problem and we owe it to our constituents, students, taxpayers and community to acknowledge it and develop a solution plan.” In particular, the hiding of the Special Education Services audit when other counties have publicized it indicates a fear of failure, but also an unwillingness to fix the problems. That does a disservice to parents of children with special needs. Any system/person/process has issues — our community is willing to help address those in a collaborative manner.

3. My priorities include: 1) Partnering with Howard County Education Association to develop a staff morale/engagement survey that will have credibility because it’s a collaboration between the union and the board.

2) Making decisions based on the impact to children’s daily activities — how does a new program work logistically and what are the assessments of educators, staff & administrators and potentially parents?

3) Restoring trust between the board and the community — I would institute a tracking system of public requests, the potential costs, time to fulfill and status with the eventual resolution (if allowed under personnel & privacy laws) so that we demonstrate our transparency.

Vicky Cutroneo

Records have not been kept in the same way as they were 20 years ago, so it would be hard to accurately compare and evaluate the achievement gap over such a long period of time. It is likely there have been gains in the most underperforming student groups, but I don’t believe it is accurate to say that there have been significant gains. If there were, it would not be up for discussion. I believe our school system should stop focusing on a top-to-bottom approach and chasing unproven curriculums and initiatives, and should get back to the basics: focus on the classroom, smaller class sizes as a non-negotiable, universal pre-K, strengthening the home-school connection so that parents are more involved, improving access to technology, and placing highly qualified and experienced teachers in high risk schools are just a few of the initiatives I believe need to be addressed in any discussion about closing the achievement gap.

2. As a parent advocate who experienced the disdain and disregard of the school system first hand, I do believe the board has been deficient in openly communicating. At times, I was ignored completely, but most often I would receive answers that were evasive and not completely truthful when inquiring about mold and air quality issues in county schools. It became clear that the board was not working on behalf of parents and stakeholders, but rather on behalf of central office and the superintendent. They are very insulated, with very little interest in reaching out to the community for information. With this dynamic in motion, we as parents had very little recourse in having our concerns addressed, and ultimately had to reach out to the press and engage social media and the help of local legislators to have our voices heard. This is unacceptable and the reason I decided to run for the Board of Education. I will be the Board of Education member that our community needed last summer, one that the entire community needs.

3. 1) Building back trust with stakeholders. Credibility is at an all-time low and very little can be accomplished if people do not believe you or have faith in your vision.

2) Refocusing priorities of the budget. We need to shift to a bottom-up approach from our current top down approach — fortifying the base, the pillars of our school system: our educators, the classroom and stop chasing unproven programs, curriculum and initiatives that look good on paper, but in reality do not work.

3) Instead of focusing on what is strong, I believe we need to admit how we are weak, what we’ve been doing wrong, and begin to own this, learn and grow from it. Hiding or minimizing issues by manipulating data to make it more palatable works for the short term, but it eventually festers and starts to implode. I believe that is what we are seeing now … the cumulative effects of hiding where we are weak that has shaken our pillars. We need to rebuild from the bottom up and we need to be honest about it.

Ann DeLacy (Incumbent)

1. When No Child Left Behind was implemented, state tests data were required to be disaggregated by subgroups. African American and Hispanic students, students with disabilities, English Language Learners and students eligible for Free and Reduces Meals (FARM) had significant gaps in performance when compared with their Asian, white and more affluent peers. Once the test scores became public, people who could afford to move to areas with higher performing schools did so.

Past practices in zoning and redistricting have led to a concentration of poor African American and Hispanic students in a number of our schools. These are areas with large numbers of apartments, often subsidized. Numerous studies have shown that when the FARM percentage of a school rises to 40%, poverty becomes the school culture. HCPSS needs to update its policy on redistricting.

The implementation of the Elementary School Model (ESM) is the first major step in closing the achievement gap I have observed in my more than 40 years of involvement in the Howard County Public School System (HCPSS). The ESM focuses on teaching to students strengths, departmentalization, telehealth, teaching Spanish in Spanish for 30 minutes each day, greater opportunities for participation in the arts and, in six schools, all day pre-K to income- eligible students.

Universal pre-K will soon be implemented in the Village of Oakland Mills’ three elementary schools. This will allow students to form richer vocabularies, acquire better socialization skills and transition better to school culture. Oakland Mills High School also has a dual enrollment program where students will eventually be able to graduate from high school with an associate of arts degree.

The achievement gap is also a result of unintended staff biases, which reduces opportunities for students. HCPSS is conducting a national search to hire staff more representative of our minority-majority population, and who appreciate and understand the diversity of our students.

2. Whether the issues are real or perceived, these concerns must be addressed. As a current board member, I only ask that the interactions be facilitated in a civil and nonthreatening manner.

Last year, a board meeting was held at Forest Ridge Elementary School. This provided an opportunity for members of the community to attend and participate in a meaningful way. I believe we should make a practice of holding meetings at other sites throughout the county as well as continuing with our Coffee & Conversation sessions. The board should work with the members of our community to learn what we need to do dispel this perception. Whatever we do, our focus must always be on supporting students’ well-being and achievement, removing barriers to learning, and ensuring that the common good all students and stakeholders be taken into account.

3. Our county executive has indicated that our current budget request will not be funded. Howard County is the fastest growing school system in the state; a recent economic impact study has shown the HCPSS brings in $1.89 billion to the county’s economy each year. Our public school system is the economic engine that drives the economy of our county. We cannot be a world-class school system if we are solely funded on maintenance of effort budget.

Each student, whether a prodigy or severely impaired, and irrespective of social economic status or zip code, must receive a world-class education. These are five priorities I believe to be the most important: universal pre-K for all four-year-olds; the expansion of world languages and the elementary school model; greater cultural awareness training for our employees; the development of curricula, which includes cultural diversity; and a comprehensive high school that focuses on the arts and school to workforce training.

Christina Delmont-Small

1. Basing the achievement gap on standardized test scores focuses resources very narrowly on mastering these tests, where they should be more focused on mastering a broader, deeper range of knowledge and more complex cognitive skills. What if your success at your job was based solely on how well you accomplished one task? You’d focus your energy and resources on doing one task well just to keep your job, to the detriment of other responsibilities and the desire to stretch yourself to master other skills. It stifles creativity in both educating and learning.

Let’s invest the resources put into preparing and taking standardized tests into reducing class sizes and providing help to students so they can actually learn the subject matter, solve problems and learn how to think. Not only will our students benefit, so will our entire community.

2. It’s definitely a real issue and one of the reasons I chose to run for the board. It was an issue to we who served on the Operating Budget Review Committee who could not get access to budget data in a way it could be properly analyzed. Then, there is House Bill 1105, recently passed by the Maryland House, requiring the Public Access Ombudsman to investigate if the Howard County Public School System (HCPSS) has followed the Maryland Public Information Act. This bill is a loud and clear message of concern from the citizens and state delegation that the board and school system haven’t been as open and transparent as they should be. The fact that there is even a question concerning whether the HCPSS is following Maryland law is a sign that changes need to be made by the board and school system in how they interact with the public.

3. More transparency is needed to hold board members accountable. Policy, staffing, budgeting and spending priorities shouldn’t be set without public review and comment. Accurate and complete budget and spending data must be available for analysis so the community can have informed input.

Demands on educators’ time that compete with teaching time, such as teacher evaluations and standardized test preparation, should be lessened. Our dedicated educators should be free to focus on helping students, including those in vulnerable groups, reach their full potential. Holding teachers accountable and measuring progress is important, but not at the expense of teaching.

Improving and strengthening relationships between the board and all stakeholders, valuing stakeholders for their insight and expertise in helping the board make informed decisions, is needed. The relationship between the board and superintendent must reflect that the superintendent is accountable to the board on all matters related to operation of the HCPSS.

Mavis Ellis

1. The HCPSS is recognized as one of the best school systems in the country. Overall performance measures in terms of graduation rates and test scores have increased during the last 20 years. Many students of all ethnicities reach their potential in Howard County. However, achievement gaps persist. We see gaps between white students, and black and Hispanic students. We also see the gaps between white students and those with low income, limited English proficiency and disabilities.

The question continues to be, “What can we do?” First, we have to foster an “every child can learn” mentality. And we have to accept that if a program isn’t working for our most challenged students, a change needs to be made and investigate successful programs from around the county to bring to our children. To allow all students access to technology we need to create partnerships with area businesses.

2. I strongly agreed that our current Board of Education and superintendent have a track record of making poor decisions in terms of transparency and collaboration with parents and other stakeholders of Howard County. This has been a real issue that been brought to the attention of other elected officials in the County Council and Maryland General Assembly.

Yes, a change is needed and I am uniquely qualified to make that change, having more than 30 years in education as a para educator, PTA president, government teacher, high school administrator, evaluation specialist, union leader and pupil personnel worker (PPW). While serving on boards of directors for the National Education Association and the Maryland State Education Association, I have collaborated with stakeholders to develop budgets, evaluate programs and implement new programs. As a PPW, I interact daily with students, their families and school staffs to problem solve. I see education 360.

3. Equity, collaboration and meaningful oversight for all stakeholders and elected officials are the key issues that must be addressed by the board as they face the issues of our student population becoming more diverse, ethnically and economically; fiscal challenges due to our increased enrollments; equitable technical education for all; and making new decisions defined in the Every Student Succeeds Act.

The incident at Mt. Hebron cannot be dealt with by just top-down solutions. Culturally relevant curriculum, cultural competence training in each school and restorative justice programs to reduce the disproportionate suspension of students are starting places.

Howard County is a community of very committed parents and taxpayers concerned about the workings of HCPSS. As voters, they have a right to be heard during decisions on the budget, and the superintendent’s contract. They deserve transparent information on issues like mold and to receive requested information in a timely manner. A change is needed.

Ellen Flynn Giles (Incumbent)

1. While on the board, I’ve seen the achievement gap narrow. To continue this progress, we need a concrete plan to eliminate societal opportunity gaps removing barriers to academic success. This effort needs a strong school, family and community connection.

For parents, we have created the International Parent Leadership Program and the Hispanic Parent Academy, and expanded the Black Student Achievement Program. Also, the board has added family outreach liaisons to support families.

There is a deliberate effort to open advanced programs, interest-based research, internships and flexible class scheduling for all. In elementary schools where poverty or limited English proficiency impacts a majority of students, we’ve established full day pre-kindergarten and daily world language instruction for all grades. This program enhances children’s readiness and participation.

It’s our teachers’ dedication and skill, though, which will ultimately reduce the achievement gap providing everyone with a chance for a bright future.

2. As a board member, I’m distressed that any parents have had a difficult time securing information. The system should always be open and responsive to the community. One of the problems, though, is that not all information requested can be shared, because it is legally protected. This doesn’t mean that parents can’t access their own children’s school records, but it does mean that information that identifies others is off limits.

Because of community complaints, I requested improvements to make information easier to find online. For example, Board Member School Cluster contact information is not prominently listed. Also, revisions to our Public Information Act (PIA) request process are in process to make it more user-friendly. I hope that changes like these will improve communication, responsiveness, and monitoring.

I understand the need to know. I want the system to communicate quickly and efficiently with everyone, and ensure complete and accurate information.

3. The world is changing rapidly for our children and their educational opportunities must keep up. To ensure this, the board must support development of a rich curriculum — one that focuses on problem solving, strong technical knowledge and cultural diversity — preparing students to be competitive in a global environment.

Teachers are the backbone of a rich curriculum. We must hire a highly qualified, diverse workforce and continue to support their professional growth and development. By doing so, we will ensure that students have a broad range of experiences through the grades.

A good education is also about an invigorating environment, one that provides up-to-date resources, well maintained buildings and enough seats to meet enrollment growth. Our responsibility is to meet our children where they are, challenge them to learn as much as possible, so they can build their futures.

Robert Miller

1. A relatively small amount of progress has been made. To make more significant progress, we much address issues of equity, as well as educational opportunities and priorities. Regarding equity, we must minimize the effect on a student’s educational opportunities caused by challenging parental circumstances. It is not reasonable to think that the gap can be closed when one student receives private tutoring and another does not; there must be compensatory efforts. Meanwhile, we must prioritize the mastery of hierarchical skills; students who fall through the cracks will eventually lack the foundation necessary to achieve at their potential. Thus, a school structure supporting one-on-one instruction, when needed, would be important, as a student struggling with Chapter 3 shouldn’t simply go on to Chapter 4; the Chapter 3 skills much still be mastered. Attention to developing organizational skills as well as providing pre-K should also be priorities.

2. Though I have not been privy to the other side of the story, the preponderance of evidence indicates at least a real perception problem, and it appears to me to be a real problem. There seems to be an avoidance of sharing potentially incriminating evidence. This has been eroding the public trust. Changes should be made that promote an atmosphere of openness and transparency, honor Maryland Public Information Act requests in a timely and reasonable manner, and eliminate propaganda and evasion.

Furthermore, I would like to see the development of a format that enables parents, educators, students and other community members to respectfully express concerns and have them addressed; possibly a monthly session that would be a cross between a town hall and a “coffee and conversation.” Undergirding all of this must be complete honesty and integrity, and a desire to provide the best possible outcomes for our students.

3. 1) Focus school system efforts on the intersection of students and teachers, thus reducing instructional and preparation time lost to standardized over testing, a poorly-conceived teacher evaluation procedure and unnecessary paperwork, thereby producing a climate where administrative/central office personnel serve educators, students and parents, and not vice versa.

2) Cultivate a partner-like atmosphere between educators and parents based on mutual respect and concern for students, with improved communication made possible by reduction of time-wasting policies and procedures.

3) Improve financial efficiencies, enabling more funds to be used for educational purposes. A budget oversight committee should exist to provide insight, “use it or lose it” procedures should be eliminated, inter-school communication should be enhanced regarding use of equipment in order to reduce waste, unproven fads should be avoided, and a coherent technology plan should be developed with consideration for financial responsibility and maximum student benefit.

Pravin Ponnuri

1. The average scores across the student population have gone up slightly over the years, but the achievement gaps based on race and economic conditions continues to widen. We need for the school system to work with the communities to build better role models and mentorship programs to help the under achieving groups. We should assign additional resources to focus on the under achieving groups, and build an after school programs for them. Traditional ways have not proven to be very effective and it is time to think outside the box to address the achievement gaps.

2. Lack of transparency, accountability and empathy are real issues with the current Board of Education and the senior management of the HCPSS. We need to start rebuilding the bridges to gain back the trust of the educators, parents and county residents. We can do this by being open, truthful and having meaningful conversations. We need the board to listen, not just hear, and we need for them to walk the talk.

3. We need independent thinkers on the board who are in tune with the community, and understand the impact of the advances in technology during the past couple of decades on the way students learn, and need to learn. We need to help our students develop the skill sets needed to be successful in the current global environment. We need to address the overcrowding of schools, and address the performance gaps between the schools within HCPSS. We need to ensure that our most vulnerable segment of the student population is not left behind.

Janet Siddiqui (Incumbent)

1. Progress has been made but must continue until we reach our goal and every student achieve their maximum potential. We need to continue to address social barriers impacting students progress by partnering with community groups, support after school programs and use data-proven individual learning methods that address each student’s unique style of learning for success. Opportunity gaps are being addressed by opening AP courses to all students. Universal Preschool/Pre-K and early education programs and other resources need to be provided to eliminate any equity issues. Students should have access to technology and resources to address their individual learning styles and cultural diversity. Teachers should have the necessary tools; technology and professional development to raise the bar for all students to succeed. School principals’ leadership plays an important role in school’s learning environment, continuing leadership intern program will help train and develop such skills.

2. Communication is the key to the success of any organization. The BOE should explore new ways to connect and engage with the community. The means of communication are changing with the advancement in technology. New ways of communications have been incorporated through social media and more needs to be done. The board should continue to review and update its methods of communication. Currently, HCPSS has an informal and formal process for responding to parents concerns or disagreements available through the HCPSS website; this process may be evaluated to make it more efficient via streamlining. The board also has an ombudsman which is another effective way for public to use towards confidential, impartial problem resolution. The board’s cluster school model also helps provide a direct link for schools and parents to the board. Public Information requests should continue to follow the Maryland Public Information Act regulations.

3. Next generation teaching and learning: The 21st century student is a different learner and uses variety of novel ways and technology learning tools. We need to recognize and provide new approach and techniques to achieve results for both students and teachers, such as professional development for teachers to master data proven teaching methods, working with employers and colleges/universities to implement the skill set required, improving school curriculum through learning strategies and diversity and providing career and technical training through our career academies and the Applications and Research Laboratory.

College and workforce readiness can offer a variety of activities, including community service, internships and apprenticeships, work-study programs, job shadowing. Help children develop critical thinking skills and have assessments that provide valuable feedback to parents and educators. Curriculum should be reflective of global challenges in Science, Technology, Engineering and Math (or STEM), arts, world languages and the diversity of the county. Balancing our budget and advocating from the needs that make our system world class continue to be a challenge in any economy.