Written by CAPA-JRC reporter Eileen Luo
These are the people who will decide MCPS policies for the next four years–and this is the perfect opportunity to get to know them. On October 13, 2022, BOE candidates gathered at an online forum hosted by the League of Women Voters (LWV). Seats up for re-election this year are At-Large, District 1, District 3, and District 5. For each district, the candidates are:
At large: Mike Erickson, Karla Silvestre
District 1: Grace Rivera-Oven, Esther Wells
District 3: Scott Joftus, Julie Yang
District 5: Valerie Coll, Brenda Wolff
Among them, Mike Erickson was unable to participate. Their host was Dr. Janelle Wong, a professor from the University of Maryland, who asked a series of questions that each candidate had a fixed amount of time to answer. Let’s hear some of them!
Dr. Janelle Wong was the host of the BOE candidate forum.
Q: What are your top three priorities?
Esther Wells [District 1]: Wells’ three top priorities were improving MCPS finances, safety, and special education services. “Safety is important, in light of the incidents we’ve seen at various schools,” she said of school security.
Julie Yang [District 3]: Yang’s were mental health, career readiness, and improved communication. “We need to rebuild the connection between the school system and our communities,” she said.
Valerie Coll [District 5]: Like Yang, Cole emphasized communication. “We know that needs to be improved [between the right and left].” She also supports employee care and student success via measures such as the antiracism audit.
Q: What should the BOE’s role be in providing oversight and accountability?
Valerie Coll [District 5]: Coll stressed two ideas: leadership and communication. “The mission of the Board is to direct policy and budget decision making,” she said. “[And] then to communicate with the superintendent how the district is supposed to work within its budget and within its expectations.”
Scott Joftus [District 3]: Joftus took a data-centric approach. “We need to make sure that we’re not just collecting outcome data,” he said, “but that we are [also] defining key aspects of implementation of key initiatives and that we’re tracking progress and fostering a continuous improvement process.”
Grace Rivera-Oven [District 1]: Rivera-Oven agreed with an earlier statement from Yang. “I think there needs to be a very clear check and balance in clarity and transparency when it comes to where funds are going,” she said.
Q: What would you do to improve engagement of immigrant parents and caregivers to improve equity?
Grace Rivera-Oven [District 1]: “I would definitely improve the communication system,” she said. “I would [also] like to establish a welcome center for those families and students to ensure… they have the right background services.”
Esther Wells [District 1]: As an immigrant herself who had gone through the MCPS system, Wells believed the Board should reach out to the community, not the other way around. “It’s critically important that [we] revise the Board of Education Handbook to have Board meetings start at the convenience of parents, and students, not in the middle of the day,” she said.
Q: What do you think the priority metrics should be in making any boundary changes in the MCPS school system?
Brenda Wolff [District 5]: “Boundaries is such a sensitive subject,” Wolff noted. She believed the key factors should be programs, diversity, FARM rates, and school proximity. With regards to school proximity, Wolff elaborated that she was not a proponent of bussing: “It just does not seem practical, and it is not something that I believe is desired by the minority and immigrant community. What they want is programs that are effective in their schools.”
Scott Joftus [District 3]: Joftus put an emphasis on education. “Strong programs in schools is the number one criteria,” he said, “and making sure that all students in all parts of the county have access to that.”
Q: How would you ensure that LGBTQ+ students’ rights are protected?
Karla Silvestre [At-large]: Silvestre named education and communication as key factors in supporting LGBTQ+ students. “We have to continuously train and support our teachers and administrators and all staff in the building, so that they understand how to support our students effectively,” she said.
Julie Yang [District 3]: “LGBTQ are more than 4 times as likely to attempt suicide than their peers [due] to their experience in society,” said Julie. “So as the school system, we really need to look at the mental health piece, the acceptance piece[.] All of our rooms need to be a safe place for our students.”
Scott Joftus [District 3]: Joftus mentioned several policies that would support LGBTQ+ rights, including gender-neutral bathrooms. “[It’s] happening with all the new facilities[, and] that’s a really important message to be sending to our youth and our staff.”
At the end of the forum, each candidate was given a longer period of time to make a final appeal. Here are some highlights from each of their statements.
“I want to emphasize my priorities. Once again I want to focus on a post-high school plan, for every student I want to focus on staff recruitment and retention, because with that our staff we cannot operate our school system. And I want to see what's working with all the mental health initiatives that we have implemented this year.”
“As a former student on free and reduced meals the former undocumented student and a former English language learner, I understand how the high quality education transformed my life and I want that for every single student in MCPS.”
Grace Rivera-Oven [District 1]:
“I am a formal ESO student, I am a long resident of Montgomery County. And as the first one to go to college and my family I can tell you that that's exactly what I want for every student: to have the opportunity to be able to do that.”
“I have been advocating for over 30 years on many issues including education and making sure that we have access and we have equity. I want to make sure that we focus on those things with the closure of the opportunity gap, expansion of mental health, school safety and, of course, ending lunch debt.”
Esther Wells [District 1]:
“I am here as a lifelong community member, as a special education mom, as a parent of two children who are in MCPS. [A]nd so a lot of all of the policies and all of the recommendations will be through the lens of current parent of elementary school kids who currently do not have a voice on the board of special education, parents who currently don't have a voice on the board.”
“I am a certified public accountant and that is a transferable skill that is needed on the board to bring transparency accountability to the board and to ensure the success of our superintendent.”
Scott Joftus [District 3]:
“There's a reason that the board selected me unanimously to fill the term of Pat O'Neill, there's a reason that superintendents and school boards from across the country seek my counsel, there's a reason that when I finish my dissertation at George Washington University I was immediately asked to join the faculty as adjunct professor for education in leadership and program evaluation. I bring actual expertise on system level change.”
“It's a rare thing for school boards to have somebody with actual expertise on system performance and performance management and equity and I bring those things.”
Julie Yang [District 3]:
“My Grassroots campaign has met the MCPS community where they are. From Poolesville to Silver Spring, from Potomac to Burtonsville. I believe how you campaign is how you govern.”
“My focus is Montgomery County. I want to devote full-time to the service of the board. I'm proud of the support of the teachers, the elected officials, and the 84 000 voters. I'm even prouder of the testimonials that my students, colleagues and community members have given me. [F]or the next four years, let's make sure students have what they need to succeed, community engagement happens for decision making, and mental health issues are prioritized.”
Valerie Coll [District 5]:
“We are truly blessed in a lot of ways here in Montgomery. Montgomery County is an abundance of riches when it comes to people who care, who bring their passion, and who bring their experiences in a variety of ways to help make sure that our school system, as big as it is, is not too big to fail.”
“One of the things that I want to assure you I will do in my service to the board [is] that ability to work together to bring various voices to the table and to listen with care and develop process so that everyone understands the success we seek for our students is something that's a very achievable goal if we're working together.”
Brenda Wolff [District 5]:
“I have a daughter that teaches in MCPS and a grandson in elementary school. I bring passion and experience to the board it is that passion and experience that has abled me to build consensus on the board working with all the perspectives to improve our school system.”
“I have served as the vice president and I have served two years as the president. I have led us through COVID, whether or not you agree with everything we've done, I was the one that was leading the charge. And I also want to point out that I'm also a first generation college student so I understand the transformational power of education.”
This article was provided by Chinese American Parents Association Junior Reporter Club (CAPA JRC) with members who interviewed, audio recorded, wrote, translated, and video recorded. CAPA JRC has 25 Montgomery County middle to high school students. They have created a bilingual platform delivering news and serving the community.