Wednesday, September 08, 2010

On the School Board Races

By Laura Berthiaume.

I am not up for election in 2010. Thank goodness. I did not have to campaign in over 50 plus days of 90 degree plus heat, my summer was largely my own, and I can put everything that goes with thinking about running for office into my “decisions to be made next summer” box. Still, I have been following this year’s political races closely, the school board races most closely of all. We all have a lot riding on the primary next Tuesday and on the general election in November, but I submit that the most important races are actually those you will vote on at the end of the ballot. So here are three myths about the Board of Education Races that I would like to dispel (hat tip to the Post’s Five Myths, and yes I limited myself to three instead of five - be glad).

1) Mike Durso isn’t the best candidate for the District 5 seat.

Not so. In fact, he is not only the best candidate for the District 5 seat, he may just be the key to the best future of our schools. Mike was unanimously selected by the rest of the Board to take Nancy Navarro’s seat. Honestly, once he threw his name into the hat, and once we saw him answer our questions, it was no contest. Mike has an intimate knowledge of schools and how they work (or do not work) because he has been in the thick of it for decades. He has been a principal in three jurisdictions: the District of Columbia, Virginia and Maryland. He retired as the principal of Springbrook High School, a “red zone” school, and his work there garnered the respect of both his students and his peers. Perhaps for me, his most sterling recommendation was that unlike many others he was never promoted up (or down, or even fired upwards, as some would have it) to MCPS headquarters during his decade or so in MCPS under the current administration. I figured that meant he probably had a spine, and I was right. His vote on the Pearson contract - basically saying that he saw no reason why he should vote yes on a contract on Tuesday he had just received for review on Sunday - was remarkable. In his year on the Board, he has been a team player when he could, given his frank and informed opinion where it was helpful, and stood up to the administration when he needed to. His insight into the current state of MCPS is unique and irreplaceable.

2) The Washington Post gives independent thought to its school board endorsements.

Apparently not. This Sunday, the Post issued its endorsements in the school board races. If I ever previously thought to myself that certain editors at the Washington Post perhaps just turn to the current Superintendent and say, “Write what you want us to say - we will turn over our editorial space to you,” this Sunday’s endorsements are sure evidence that I have been right to think it. How else to explain the Post started off with a glowing paragraph about the Superintendent’s favorite Board Member, Patricia O’Neill, who is not even in a primary race and is not on your September ballot? How else to explain the Post’s failure to endorse Mike Durso, the person best positioned to guide the next Superintendent through the inner politics of MCPS, to point out where nests are being feathered, empires grown, and wounds are festering in need of healing? Maybe it was that the administration is so very, very ticked off about Mike's Pearson vote? Or maybe it was just that Mike was honest with the Washington Examiner about the fact that the current vote count on renewing the Superintendent's contract was running 6 to 1 against. The fact is, the Post Editorial Board thinks that strong school boards are universally bad (really - I got it from the horse’s mouth). So, I ask you, if the Post does not want you to elect a strong school board that will demand accountability - for taxpayer dollars, for corporate culture, for academic results, for kids’ well-being while at school - what exactly does that say about the candidates the editors did endorse? What does it say that they devoted an entire paragraph to Mrs. O’Neill, while barely giving Shirley Brandman the time of day? That the Carver staff does not particuarly love Ms. Brandman, but they did not have an acceptable alternative to support against her, given that Lyda Astrove, someone who regularly gives them fits, is her opponent?

3) I can skip voting on the school board races.

NO! Reason number one: The next Board of Education not only selects the next Superintendent but also makes sure the selection process goes smoothly and quickly, with no hiccups, intentional or otherwise. The Superintendent of Montgomery County Public Schools is the highest paid public office in Montgomery County - by far - and it is an unelected position. The contract is for four years, so it is darned hard to fire a Superintendent once he or she in office, which means you had better pick a good one when you have the chance. Getting a good Superintendent is the direct result of having a wise and responsible Board of Education. To me, that means that my main goal will be to pick a Superintendent who has the vision to look ten years down the road, with all of the reforms and innovations that occur every day now, and get us to the school system of the future. It is certainly not to pick through a screen of finding someone who will just protect the choices that have been made in the past or to cover up past mistakes or secure a “legacy.” In short, we need a Board that is dedicated to the future, not to the past. We need innovation and flexible thinking, not protection and navel-gazing.

Reason number two: The MCPS is the vast majority of your tax dollars - 57% of this year’s County budget. By the way, your County Council members can’t touch it by line item, only by category. ‘Nuf said.

Vote for Mike Durso.

Laura Berthiaume was elected to the Board of Education in 2008.