Lynne Harris for Board of Education At-Large

May 18, 2020, 7:23 p.m. | By Silver Chips Editorial Board | 4 years, 2 months ago

The Silver Chips Editorial Board is proud to release this endorsement for the primary in the race for the At-Large seat on the Board of Education

The Silver Chips Editorial Board is proud to endorse Lynne Harris for the open at-large seat on the Montgomery County Board of Education. Ms. Harris’ deep knowledge of the school system, unique prioritization of students, and diverse career experiences make her the ideal choice for students and families as MCPS recovers from the COVID-19 pandemic.

Experience begets action

Of the candidates on the ballot, Ms. Harris has the most thorough understanding of our school system. She most recently served as president of the Montgomery County Council of PTAs, overseeing an organization of 45,000 volunteers, and she has taught Medical Science with Clinical Applications at Thomas Edison High School of Technology for the last four years.

Headshot of Lynne Harris, a candidate for the At-Large seat on the Board of Education

As the eight-member Board of Education develops and implements MCPS’ response to the pandemic, Ms. Harris’ wide breadth of professional experience will be invaluable: In her career, Ms. Harris has worked as a grant coordinator at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, a lawyer at the U.S. Department of Justice, and as an attorney advisor at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

We asked all four candidates about MCPS' response to COVID-19. View their answers on our Twitter page.

Though he does not have as much experience in MCPS as Ms. Harris, fellow candidate Sunil Dasgupta, a professor at UMBC, would serve as a suitable Board member. Dr. Dasgupta’s time as Chair of the MCCPTA's Health and Wellness Committee suggests that he will pay close attention to student wellness as we recover from the covid-19 pandemic, which will be crucial.

However, we have some concerns regarding Dr. Dasgupta’s platform.

Budget shortfalls

We believe that Dr. Dasgupta’s plan to take MCPS through the impending budget crisis is unlikely to succeed. In short, Dr. Dasgupta proposes better school utilization, which would reduce the need to build additions to schools and to rent portables.

While this plan is sound—economically, environmentally, and logically—in the long term, we fear that it will yield no returns in the near future. To better manage school utilization, MCPS would have to implement boundary changes, and because of the strength of the opposition to MCPS’ current boundary study, this Editorial Board doubts that the Board of Education would be able and willing to pass Dr. Dasgupta’s proposal.

Headshot of Sunil Dasgupta, a candidate for the At-Large seat on the Board of Education

Ms. Harris, on the other hand, detailed clear, immediate steps she would take to decrease budgetary pressure. “There were some programs that we were targeted to scale up, but I think we would pause on things like more innovative school calendar schools, more two-way immersion schools, [and]… the expansion of the IB magnets to eight new sites,” which would also give MCPS a much-needed opportunity to conduct a quality assurance audit, Ms. Harris said.

This school system will need to take strong, early action to prevent long-term budget constraints. We believe that Ms. Harris is best-positioned to push the Board toward sensible plans.

We asked all four candidates about the budget. View their answers on our Twitter page.

Staff discipline

An important factor in our decision was the answer to this question:

On Oct. 31, 2018, four students were raped with a broomstick in the Damascus High School football locker room. The principal of Damascus at the time, Casey Crouse, and the other Damascus administrators were required to immediately notify the police. Instead, administrators discussed the allegations in text messages and enlisted a JV player to “investigate.” Crouse still works for MCPS and continues to receive her $160,763 principal’s salary. The varsity football coach and assistant athletic director at the time, Eric Wallich, still teaches at Damascus. How would you discipline teachers and school staff who are involved in negligence?

Ms. Harris immediately called out the principal and administrators’ union (Montgomery County Association of Administrators and Principals) and the teachers’ union (Montgomery County Education Association).

“It goes to the contracts we have with MCAAP and MCEA and what they’ve been able to negotiate over the years,” Ms. Harris said. “I have multiple concerns and issues with the contracts—and I’m saying that as a teacher. When we’re talking about students, and we’re talking about criminal law, [it should be] suspension without pay immediately. I have real problems with those [administrators] still being in the positions they’re in.

“None of these people were new,” Ms. Harris added. “Casey Crouse had been a principal in this system for eight years. That should have been cause, in my mind, for immediately being dismissed, because there is no excuse.”

The only other candidate to directly suggest the dismissal of negligent school staff was Jay Guan. Dr. Dasgupta focused on fostering a culture of reporting these incidents immediately to the police, as the law requires, while Stephen Austin called for the administrators to be “held accountable” without specifics.

While Mr. Guan, Dr. Dasgupta, and Mr. Austin are not wrong, only Ms. Harris spoke in detail how the negligent Damascus administrators should have been disciplined and rightly tied MCPS’ weak response to its contracts with the unions. We appreciate her willingness to immediately and unequivocally call out those at fault, from the Damascus staff to the unions protecting them.

We asked all four candidates about staff discipline after Damascus. View their answers on our Twitter page.

A student-centered platform

Another testament to Ms. Harris’ student-centered platform is her plethora of student endorsements, including MoCo Students for Change, MoCo Students on Climate, and former Student Members of the Board Ananya Tadikonda, Matt Post, Eric Guerci, and Sebastian Johnson. Ms. Harris has also served on the Montgomery County Commission on Children and Youth since late 2016.

On the other hand, Mr. Austin, a finance professional, has had a fair share of run-ins with students. As a leader in the opposition to the ongoing boundary study, Mr. Austin founded MoCo Neighbors for Local Schools; members of this group have belittled student activists, fear-mongered about the rather innocuous study, and discounted the peculiarity of a school system with 10,860 students in overcrowded schools and 9,357 empty seats in under-enrolled schools.

Headshot of Stephen Austin, a candidate for the At-Large seat on the Board of Education

Mr. Austin also previously dismissed the electoral process that SMOB candidates face, writing in a Facebook post, “The SMOB ‘election’ isn’t a real election. It’s between 2 candidates hand-picked by MCPS.” Mr. Austin told this Editorial Board that he was referring to the Nomination Convention, where student delegates from each school—not MCPS—vote for the two candidates for the general election, and acknowledged that “I shouldn’t have been so flippant with the way I explained that."

However, Mr. Austin argued that a SMOB should not chair a Board committee because they only serve one year and that any impactful legislation the SMOB proposes ought to have an “adult sponsor.” This Editorial Board strongly disagrees. Though most only serve for one year, SMOBs often advocate for the same policies as their predecessors. This continuity proves the importance of a full-fledged Board member who answers directly to us students.

We believe that Mr. Austin’s expertise as a finance professional would help the Board manage impending budgetary difficulties, but his lack of MCPS-specific experience, his opposition to the boundary study, and his group’s run-ins with students are too much to overlook.

A promising future

Jay Guan, an aerospace engineer who works with the Federal Aviation Agency and leads the race in monetary contributions, is a promising candidate. His focus on the approaching fourth industrial revolution is certainly important, as are his calls for deeper MCPS-family connections in immigrant communities.

However, this Editorial Board feels that Mr. Guan is underprepared for a Board seat at this stage. His time volunteering with MCPS groups includes only a handful of advisory committees, unlike Ms. Harris’ time in leadership and as a teacher.

Headshot of Jay Guan, a candidate for the At-Large seat on the Board of Education

The vast majority of Mr. Guan’s monetary support comes from the Asian-American community. While we applaud Mr. Guan’s efforts to pave a path for Asian-American involvement in leadership, we believe he needs to develop a wider support base. Further, he has received relatively few endorsements from local leaders, which suggests that he has yet to develop strong connections in Montgomery County government. With more experience under his belt, Mr. Guan may well be the candidate to beat in the coming years. 

About our endorsement process

This Editorial Board invited the four leading candidates—Mr. Guan, Mr. Austin, Dr. Dasgupta, and Ms. Harris—for 40-minute video interviews. Mr. Guan, Mr. Austin, and Dr. Dasgupta lead the race in donations; Ms. Harris, who stopped taking donations in early March, leads the race in notable endorsements. Each candidate answered a set of 15 standard questions, along with follow-ups and questions tailored to that candidate’s platform and background.

Silver Chips is publishing video clips of the interviews on its Twitter account, @silver_chips.

This Editorial Board is composed of the Editors-in-Chief, the Ombudsman, and the Managing Op/Ed Editors. The endorsement and opinion of this Editorial Board are completely separate from Silver Chips’ fact-driven, fair and balanced news coverage, and they hold no sway in the content nor tone of Silver Chips’ articles.

Ms. Harris’ other endorsements include The Washington Post, County Executive Marc Elrich, former Superintendent Josh Starr, multiple student groups, and the four aforementioned former SMOBs.

Last updated: Nov. 23, 2020, 7:32 p.m.

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