Mongomery County 2020 school board candidates

Like many other school systems, Montgomery has been upended as never before by the fallout

Like many other school systems, Montgomery has been upended as never before by the fallout of the health crisis. Students are logging in from home for virtual learning. There are no buses to school every day, no sitting in classrooms for in-person instruction.

Seven weeks into the school year, it is unclear when it will change. State officials have pushed Maryland school systems to consider bringing at least some students back on campus. But Montgomery has not set a date.

Meanwhile, enrollment is down, with worries about major budget shortfalls.

In this uncertainty, voters will choose between two candidates for each seat in nonpartisan contests. One hopeful is a professor, another a teacher and yet another is a sports radio personality. Many have been involved as advocates. Two are incumbents.

Below are answers each candidate gave to several questions from The Washington Post. They have been edited for clarity and brevity.

Michael Fryar, 52, a lawyer who has worked for more than three decades in education, social work and advocacy, is making his first bid for office in Maryland. Early in his career, he was an elementary school teacher for eight years.

Top issues: the achievement gap, universal prekindergarten

How soon should the school system bring at least some students back for in-person learning?

Students should come back as soon as possible, under successful safety precautions as demonstrated by other school districts.

What should the school system do to better support learning online?

More thorough teacher training with better supports.

Do you support the countywide boundary analysis that has sparked debate?

I support boundary analysis and redistricting as (many) students do not attend their closest schools.

What one thing should be done to narrow the achievement gap?

Redistricting is a start, followed by the creation of public school choice through theme and magnet schools.

Background: Earned bachelor’s and master’s degrees at Southern Connecticut State University, an MBA at the University of Connecticut and a law degree at Quinnipiac University. He is the father of two children in county schools, at Fields Road Elementary and Ridgeview Middle.

Rebecca Smondrowski, 51, an incumbent seeking a third term, chairs the board’s special populations committee and says she has had a strong interest in students in special education, English-language learners and those who do best with alternative styles of learning.

Top issues: Ensuring safe, positive learning environments, and that every student can access appropriate programming and pathways.

How soon should the school system bring at least some students back for in-person learning?

As soon as we are cleared to safely do so.

What should the school system do to better support learning online? Continue efforts to ensure access to compatible technology systems for everyone, provide electronics (beyond Chromebooks) and support professional development for teachers.

Do you support the countywide boundary analysis that has sparked debate?

I support conducting a boundary analysis in order to gain a better understanding of the utilization of facilities and program locations.

What one thing should be done to narrow the achievement gap?

Provide additional resources to students who need more, make sure our staff has access to the best training and materials to support these students, and expand quality early-childhood education.

Background: Attended West Chester University in Pennsylvania and is the parent of two graduates of the school system. Previously worked as a legislative aide to former state senator Roger Manno (D-Montgomery) and held office on the county council of PTAs.

Shebra Evans, 48, who lives in Aspen Hill, is an incumbent seeking a second term on the board, and was twice elected by her colleagues as president of the Montgomery County Board of Education.

Top issues: Close gaps in opportunity and achievement, and continue to expand public-private partnerships, particularly in early education.

How soon should the school system bring at least some students back for in-person learning?

The conversations are ongoing on what a safe return looks like for students and staff, but health and safety remain a top priority.


What should the school system do to better support learning online?

The system should remain flexible and make changes as needed during virtual learning.

Do you support the countywide boundary analysis that has sparked debate?

Yes, I supported the hiring of an external consultant to do a districtwide analysis of school and cluster boundaries.

What one thing should be done to narrow the achievement gap? The continued expansion of prekindergarten.

Background: Earned a bachelor’s degree in economics and finance from Tennessee State University and is the mother of two daughters who attend John F. Kennedy High School.

Steve Solomon, 44, a sports radio personality and podcast host known as “Solly” to listeners, is making a first bid for the school board as a way to contribute to the county where he has always lived. He resides in Silver Spring.

Top issues: Expand vocational and technical programs to more schools, and make all schools safe and modern.

How soon should the school system bring at least some students back for in-person learning?

As soon as safely possible

What should the school system do to better support learning online?

I believe the school system has done a good job transitioning to digital learning, but we have to understand that students (especially elementary and middle school kids) will not learn as much this way, so we need to adjust the curriculum accordingly.

Do you support the countywide boundary analysis that has sparked debate?

Yes, I believe that the most important factors for boundary changes should be proximity (a child should go to the school closest to them unless they are in a special program at another school) and fixing overcrowding by balancing over- and undercapacity schools.

What one thing should be done to narrow the achievement gap?

We need to retain the best teachers, thereby giving all students the best chance to achieve.

Background: Earned bachelor’s degrees in economics and theater at the University of Maryland and is active on several boards, nonprofits and issues in the county.

Sunil Dasgupta, 52, a political science professor at the University of Maryland Baltimore County, is a first-time candidate who became active in the countywide PTA council in 2017. He lives in Aspen Hill.

Top issues: Help students, teachers and staff recover from pandemic losses and make the school system truly more equitable.

How soon should the school system bring at least some students back for in-person learning?

Public health officials determine that timeline, while the job of school leaders is to plan, plan, plan, look into every contingency possible, and be ready when the time comes. There is little evidence of serious planning in the school system.

What should the school system do to better support learning online?

We need to ensure robust technology availability, reimagine lesson plans in discrete modules that students can go back to, and give paraeducators and teachers manageable workloads as well as technical and pedagogical support to make a direct connection with students.

Do you support the countywide boundary analysis that has sparked debate?

Yes. We should have a new policy of boundary adjustment that is regular (not ad hoc), systemwide (not school by school), and predictable (announced years ahead).

What one thing should be done to narrow the achievement gap?

The school system needs to rebalance resources to address underlying opportunity gaps and make a big push to cut the reading deficit using early childhood programs, more phonics instruction and increased content education.

Background: Earned his doctoral degree at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and is the father of three children who attend county schools: Rockville High, Loiederman Middle and Barnsley Elementary.

Lynne Harris, 58, a medical science teacher at Thomas Edison High School of Technology, is a former three-time president of the countywide council of PTAs who has advocated on education issues for more than a decade. She lives in Silver Spring.

Top issues: Open and transparent data, and bringing the student voice into all decision-making; they’re the best barometer for how we’re doing as a system.

How soon should the school system bring at least some students back for in-person learning?

We should be periodically bringing small groups of students into our schools now for in-person instructional purposes: special education students, students really struggling academically and students in intensely hands-on career and technology programs like construction, medical science, auto mechanics, cosmetology.

What should the school system do to better support learning online?

Create a real, public health-focused plan for bringing small groups of students who particularly need in-person instruction into schools (special education, most struggling, some career programs) and provide learning pods in schools for students who lack reliable broadband service.

Do you support the countywide boundary analysis that has sparked debate?

I support the boundary analysis and believe a comprehensive and objective countywide review is long overdue. There should be more partnership between the school system and county planning officials.

What one thing should be done to narrow the achievement gap?

Put highly effective teachers in the most impacted classrooms, and highly effective administrators in the most impacted schools.

Background: Earned a bachelor’s degree in nursing at the University of Tulsa, a law degree at Washington University in St. Louis and a master’s in public health at Johns Hopkins University. Her son attends Albert Einstein High School.

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