Prince George’s elections: School board candidates pitch covid recovery plans

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As Prince George’s County Public Schools recovers from another pandemic year, school board candidates in the upcoming primary race pitched how they’d tackle learning loss gaps faced by students.

The school system is the state’s second largest, with roughly 131,000 students. It has traditionally been the most stringent with coronavirus protocols, as it kept a mask requirement in place while other school systems dropped it. Prince George’s was also the last school system in the state to return to in-person learning.

Meanwhile, its school board has been plagued by polarization that observers say stems from its hybrid appointee and elected member makeup. As state officials revise the board’s format, voters head to the polls beginning this week to pick new members.

There are four seats up for election, but only one has a primary: District 6. Only two candidates each are on the ballot in the remaining districts, meaning they will automatically advance to the general election.

While the election is on July 19, early voting begins July 7.

Below are questions posed to the candidates by The Washington Post. There are five candidates competing for the District 6 seat; three responded to questions by deadline. Responses were edited for brevity and clarity.

Jenni Pompi, 44, is a senior editor in the periodicals department of a nonprofit. She resides in Greenbelt, Md., has been a county resident for about 25 years and has two children enrolled in Prince George’s County Public Schools. She said her previous experience as a journalist covering District 2 gives her a strong understanding of local politics and deep understanding of municipal budgeting.

Top issues: Creating a safe, healthy environment for educators, children and parents; clear and consistent communication; restorative practices in classrooms; strengthening community schools.

How would you help students recover from learning losses and mental health challenges seen during the pandemic?

I am a strong supporter of the role that community schools will play as part of the Blueprint for Maryland’s Future. Engaging students and families through wraparound services such as additional counselors and enhanced learning opportunities through field trips during school and after-school hours and through partnerships with organizations; and focusing on improving student attendance and parent engagement (including educational opportunities for parents and other family members), are proven to increase student success.

I will also work to ensure each school has a fully funded mental health services coordinator position and support teacher and staff professional development around recognizing symptoms of mental health problems.

What is your position on the school board returning to a fully elected board by 2024?

I support the Board of Education’s return to a fully elected board by 2024, and the Board’s ability to select its own leadership by 2023.

How would you support retaining and recruiting educators?

I will commit to fully implementing the Blueprint, and with that, it’s promised set starting salary of $60,000 for all teachers by 2026. I also support salary increases in the union contract for competitive pay with surrounding counties. I support a real career development system with professional development opportunities and protected professional development days to retain both new and veteran certified teachers.

How would you improve school safety?

I support enhancing external safety features already in place and being constructed in new PGCPS buildings, such as security vestibules and secure entrances. Just as important is building a strong sense of community through restorative practices and wraparound services that enhance the safety and security of our students.

Incumbent Board member Joshua M. Thomas did not respond to questions.

Incumbent Board member Pamela Boozer-Strother, 53, is an associate sector consultant for sponsorship programs. She lives in Brentwood, Md., and has a son in the school system. She helped lead the system through the crisis of the coronavirus pandemic she said, and is deeply knowledgeable of the programming and budgeting of the $2.6 billion system.

Top issues: Family and community engagement respected as critical to academic achievement; school construction; Blueprint for Maryland’s Future programs and funding, including the Community Schools wraparound supports model and additional supports for English Language Learners and special education; and, climate change action planning in operations and the curriculum.

How would you help students recover from learning losses and mental health challenges seen during the pandemic?

I support the academic recovery plans developed by CEO Dr. Monica Goldson. PGCPS has been a leader in pandemic response, building tutoring and summer programs to provide year-round supports for learning-loss gaps as well as implementing the Blueprint for Maryland’s community schools model with wraparound services that include mental health practitioners in school buildings.

What is your position on the school board returning to a fully elected board by 2024?

I am proud to be an elected Board Member who is well regarded by my constituents as accessible and responsive, and who works collaboratively with the Board chair, colleagues and administration. I can provide stability and continuity when the Board returns to fully elected.

How would you support retaining and recruiting educators?

With the support of the Blueprint for Maryland’s Future legislation, PGCPS continues to increase pay steps and annual cost of living adjustments in addition to a competitive benefits package. I voted to expand the budget for tuition reimbursement, incentive pay and to raise the hourly pay rate for substitutes to $30/hour to make it possible for teachers to take time off for professional development and rest.

How would you improve school safety?

I will continue to advocate for funding for new clean energy school buildings that are built with the features of secure front entrances and modern doors and locks; improve safe walking paths to schools and advocate for a fully staffed crossing guard program; promote mitigating covid-19 spread through a high vaccine rate; and, support budgets with increased services for bullying prevention and restorative approaches to conflict resolution.

Varinia V. Sandino did not respond to questions.

Pat Fletcher, 72, is a retiree, and former member of the school board from 2006 to 2010. Several family members, including her two daughters who became teachers, have been or are students in PGCPS. She has two decades of experience in the field of mental health and resides in Landover, Md.

Top issues: Student achievement, accessibility to mental health services, healthy and effective learning environment.

How would you help students recover from learning losses and mental health challenges seen during the pandemic?

Presently, PGCPS is offering credit recovery over the summer at no cost. I would like to see this program continue after school when it begins in August for the entire school year. I would like to see PGCPS partner with the county health department and have mental health counselors/workers in every school.

What is your position on the school board returning to a fully elected board by 2024?

I participated in the open public forums of the committee that the county executive initiated to do research and provide recommendations about this topic and am in agreement that the school board be fully elected.

How would you support retaining and recruiting educators?

Competitive salaries equal more certified teachers equal smaller classrooms, which result in an effective learning environment for our students. When businesses come into the county instead of [the] tax breaks that we give them, have them make a commitment to give a percentage of their annual income to the schools or a portion of their taxes that they pay to the county come to PGCPS earmarked for staff pay.

How would you improve school safety?

I would like to see training of all staff (not just the teachers) to be able to recognize when a student is in trouble and able to direct the student to the proper resources. Mental health counselors/psychologist in all schools and in-school suspension with counseling. I would also recommend safety officers in the schools.

Brandon D. Jackson did not respond to questions.

Dannine Johnson did not respond to questions.

Ashley Kearney, 32, is a whole child and anti-racist systems integration manager for D.C. Public Schools. She lives in Seat Pleasant, Md. She is an accomplished policy adviser with demonstrated success in educator effectiveness training, driving student achievement and managing a congressional education portfolio.

Top issues: Creating a safe, empowering, joyous and 21st-century learning environment, having highly qualified and supported educators.

How would you help students recover from learning losses and mental health challenges seen during the pandemic?

Students’ readiness to learn starts with the relational structures in the climate and culture of schools, and the strength of the school’s relationship with families, caregivers and community partners. In addition to the Blueprint’s response, I’d advocate for using the real-time site and population data analytics from the new data management system rolled out in March to ensure services rendered, and workshops and training provided to families and staff directly [to] meet the needs of the student reported [as] common concerns outlined in the PGCPS Mental Health Services updates.

What is your position on the school board returning to a fully elected board by 2024?

I support the return to a fully elected board by 2024, as well as the recommendation of the task force to not allow candidates to appear on slates. I’d also advocate for opportunities for community-based board training workshops to provide access to those qualified persons seeking office, and support the necessary pipeline given the task force’s additional term limit recommendation.

How would you support retaining and recruiting educators?

I’d increase the opportunities for paid teacher leadership, ensure opportunities for comprehensive professional development, increased recognition, grow pipelines for substitute teachers and teaching aids with reciprocal university and district partnerships that provide opportunities to allow educators time to commit to further studies and [give] teacher candidates additional clinical practice or access to teacher apprenticeship. I’d also work with county leadership to explore additional property tax credits for educators who own a home in the county and serve for a determined amount of years.

How would you improve school safety?

I would establish a school safety work group to include teachers, students, concerned community members and leaders who would consider the findings of the Optimal School Safety Task Force to address problems of practice in ensuring Optimally Safe School status. I’d also work with the school-to-prison pipeline work group to consider collaborating with the Maryland Association of School Resource Officers to increase the number of district school administrators, counselors, parents and teachers to co-create best practices and establishment of school safety metrics as an effective stopgap to the long-term of efforts of Optimal School Task Force for restructuring and/or phase out of SRO and security personnel.

Sean Michael Wilson, 28, is a municipal liaison and special assistant to the chief of staff for the Prince George’s County State’s Attorney’s Office. He is a Prince George’s County native, who graduated from the school system and resides in Seat Pleasant, Md. Wilson said his experience as a public servant having worked at every level of government makes him qualified for the board seat.

Top issues: Competitive teacher pay, attracting and retaining highly qualified teachers, school safety, expanding vocational/career technical programs.

How would you help students recover from learning losses and mental health challenges seen during the pandemic?

I would create remedial programs and for English language learners to learn their core studies in their native language. I would increase mental health workshops for parents and students, and add to the number of in-school clinicians supporting the county Mental Health Coordinator.

What is your position on the school board returning to a fully elected board by 2024?

I fully support an all-elected school board as I believe it returns democracy to the residents of District 6 and Prince George’s County.

How would you support retaining and recruiting educators?

We recruit not to fill a vacancy but to educate a child, thus we need the best and the brightest highly EFFECTIVE teachers. I would support the school board ensuring that we foster a supportive and nurturing work culture that values teachers and offers a compensation/reward system that incentivizes teachers to excel in supporting teaching and learning. I support raising salaries to be regionally competitive, ensuring updated trainings are offered in their subject area as well as professional development.

How would you improve school safety?

With the recent uptick of violence and gun incidents in our schools, we must do everything in our power to keep them safe such as ensure that our school-based security have all the necessary resources and training to make sure they can effectively do their job. We must look at ways to monitor social media for school and fight activities and engage our parents to understand student culture. Also engage more community members to serve as student mentors.

Kent Roberson, 38, works in government relations. He is a graduate of Prince George’s County Public Schools. He has two children in the school system, and previously was the vice president of the PTSA. He lives in Clinton, Md.

Top issues: Infrastructure, support systems.

How would you help students recover from historic learning-loss gaps and mental health challenges seen during the pandemic?

I believe reinforcing the opportunities for continued online programs that are currently offered through the school system would be one way to help with learning loss. This includes working with the school CEO to identify ways we can work together to find mental health partners in the community that can speak to the needs of our scholars.

What is your position on the school board returning to a fully elected board by 2024?

I support the school board returning to a fully elected board by 2024.

How would you support retaining and recruiting educators?

I believe we should work with the Maryland State Board of Education to allow the educators that have been substituting for long periods of time to receive credit toward their certifications and be hired as full-time educators. I also believe there should be alternatives to educators having to take the PRAXIS exam, when they have been evaluated as effective educators. Lastly, I believe we should work more closely with our state colleges and universities to provide tuition assistance and tax incentives for those individuals that commit to work in the school system or live within their school district.

Lolita Walker, 44, is a certified life, leadership and executive coach, keynote speaker, and small business owner of a personal and professional consultancy. She is a graduate of the school system and resides in Accokeek, Md. Her education, coupled with work, home and life experiences enable her to bring a multitude of skills to the table, she said.

Top issues: Mental health, school safety, parental engagement.

How would you help students recover from learning losses and mental health challenges seen during the pandemic?

Learning-Loss Gaps: Building upon our Summer Learning Spark Program, I would aim to create linkages between our high school and elementary school scholars, whereby high-schoolers in 11th and 12th grade are afforded the opportunity to mentor and tutor our younger scholars. This, alongside partnerships with existing community tutoring resources, will ensure that we begin to bridge the learning-loss gaps.

Mental Health Challenges: Though there are programming and resources available through mindfulness curriculum currently offered to teachers, it is imperative that professional and personal development is also offered to students and staff by way of cultural diversity training and credentialed resources that are both inside and outside of the school system.

What is your position on the school board returning to a fully elected board by 2024?

It is my belief that a mix of elected and appointed positions are value-added for any board. Elected officials represent the chosen leaders who qualified voters have trusted to represent them, which often drives a deep sense of accountability. An appointed position offers the opportunity to construct a harmonious bridge that leads to stability and forward progression, minus what could be a political stalemate, at times.

How would you support retaining and recruiting educators?

High school teaching internships, incoming credit for teaching in the district to which you were educated, and involvement in early mentorship of our scholars from education majors in local universities can begin to build a lane to recruitment of successful teachers. To retain teachers, some considerations are the continuation and/or implementation of bonuses (sign on, loyalty, performance, to include student and peer feedback, etc.), funding for educational advancement via coursework and certifications, and both local and national media to highlight wins.

How would you improve school safety?

Partnerships with local police departments to increase security presence and influence in and surrounding the schools; cellphone and internet providers to sponsor workshops on cyber safety and its impact on mental and physical health; community centers to attract retirees, providing additional classroom coverage for small-group learning and hallway monitoring; therapists and counseling services to provide safe spaces for our scholars to uncover what they may be holding internally; recreational centers to provide before and after school activities and programming; and with art institutions to partner with our art staff and students to create murals, positive affirmations and creative ways to celebrate the wins of our scholars, encouraging them to persevere through the toughest of times.

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