With rising concern over school safety, should county police officers or sheriff's deputies be assigned to all public schools, along with additional screening methods, such as metal detectors, student pat-downs and clear backpacks?
Pena: Schools are safe. I am against the use of metal detectors in schools. It gives a false sense of security to parents while making the children feel as though the schools are not safe. For metal detectors to be effective access to schools must be tightly controlled and always monitored, day and night, otherwise weapons can be brought in, hidden and used at a later time. Clear backpacks do nothing to prevent violence. Someone who wanted to bring in a weapon could still do it by wrapping it in something. Gym bags or sports bags are a larger and thus easier to hide a large weapon in. Regarding officers in the schools, the focus should be developing positive relationships with students not simply policing the halls. I would like to see a highly selective screening process and extensive training prior to officers being placed in the schools. This has the potential to build more positive community relations with law enforcement but only if carefully initiated. It is difficult to help a child get past the fact that they may have had bad experiences with the police in the past. To achieve it we must have officers who take a different approach to student interaction. I would like to see the race any officers assigned to a school be reflective of the student population. We need common sense measure such as securing the schools but as we know there are always way around the most sophisticated security plan.
Is the county school system's program to reduce crowded schools through redistricting an effective method given projected shifts in population growth, housing development plans?
Pena: Last year, rather than make the difficult decision to redistrict several overcrowded high schools, the decision was made to use a form of open enrollment to address the problem. While the Jump Start program provided relief at one high school, others are still dangerously overcrowded. The decision not to redistrict also forced the choice as to the location of the new high school. Redistricting would have provided more time to identify a location closer to the over crowded area. Poorly designed schools districts have made redistricting a nightmare. We are faced with a variety of issues. People tend to dislike redistricting, it is stressful and disruptive. Schools are often set at the edge of their district rather than being central to the district.The cost of new school construction continues to rise. We also have multiple schools that are under enrolled which leads few sections of classes being offered and larger class sizes. When we have schools that are overcrowded adjacent to under enrolled schools, we must redistrict. It is the only financially responsible decision. New school construction should be used when the entire region is facing over crowded school. We also need to evaluate districts regarding the socioeconomic and racial composition. All students can benefit from a diverse school population. We should never have school be segregated at any level. Our children should be in brick and mortar schools, not portables. If we don’t redistrict our children will continue to be educated in trailers..
Superintendent Michael Martirano has shifted budget priorities and is proposing to eliminate a world language program that's in place at eight (of 41) Howard County elementary schools and his budget might require increasing class sizes, by one student, in several middle and high schools. He would like to increase the number of social workers — at a pace of three per year — to help students struggling with mental health issues. Are these prudent choices?
Pena: I believe strongly in equity for our students. That is why I would have liked to see the World Language program in our Title 1 schools continue. But this program, while it is certainly worthwhile for our students, lacked a secure funding source. There are many excellent programs that could be added to our schools, but they must have funding. So if the funding does not increase we must decrease an area of spending. What other programs would be cut? By increasing class sizes, we are impacting all students in the county in a negative manner. We also must evaluate how this affects the county’s ability to secure funding for new school construction from the state. There is a need in our schools in increase mental health services. Our schools are the front lines for addressing these issues with our children. But it is wrong to place the entire burden of this on our schools. We need to be working with our already established community resources to address these problems and the funding should not come at the expense of our educational programs. Mental health is not just an issue for the schools, and the schools can’t fix the problem without support from and for the families and communities. The county and state need to increase funding specific to this issue. The question is are these decisions prudent. In light of a deficit of $50 million, the options were few and the decisions are difficult but had to be made.
The system's health fund has been in the red for several years — the deficit projected at $50 million by this summer — and Mr. Martirano has requested one-time funds from the county to start to pay down the deficit. But higher health insurance rates are also in the cards; this is one apparent sticking point in the ongoing union contract talks. How do you believe this problem should be addressed?
Pena: The county needs to assist with fixing this problem for the good of the school system and the entire county. The county has the rainy day fund and this may be the time to use it. The problem is serious and can not be allowed to drag down the school system. Good faith negotiations with the teachers’ unions must continue. Teachers should not be paying for the past deficit, however there may need to be adjustments to what the will pay in the future for the health care as those cost rise for all.
How would you evaluate HCPS' efforts to reduce achievement gaps between students of different races and backgrounds? Does more need to be done?
Pena: HCPSS has shown mixed results when it comes to reducing the achievement gap for our students of color and economically disadvantaged. Many schools struggle with this, but one school, Hammond High has excelled. Hammond is a diverse schools in the county both racially and socioeconomically. Named as a “School of Opportunity” for 2017,it has increased graduation rates significantly for minority students and special needs students. The school encourages students to take more challenging courses including AP classes and provides various supports to help students achieve more. They use restorative practices and the culture between staff and students at the school was described as the best the reviewers have ever seen. HCPSS is looking to increase the use of restorative practices in the county which I fully support. To succeed this will take time and training. It will require that not only do the administrators and staff have to believe in what they are doing but the community also need to buy into the system. For some communities, this will be a challenge. Many want to continue the with the punitive form of discipline, however that only lead to a greater inequity of discipline for students of color, special needs students and those of lower income. What we have been doing doesn’t work, what we have been doing fuels the school to prison pipeline. To break it we need to examine what schools like Hammond are doing well and start to institute it at other schools.
Did the school board act appropriately in agreeing to pay former superintendent Renee Foose more than $1.6 million in salary and benefits to persuade her to resign?
Pena: The school board can hire a superintendent but they are not able to fire them, that must be done through the state. The situation between the Board and Dr. Foose was preventing work from being accomplished for the school system and the good of the students. I feel it was inappropriate the board renewed her contract in spite of the concerns raised by the public. While she did not deserve the payment and benefits she received, having her agree to resign was worth it in the end. Had her leadership continued the school system would have its leadership stuck in a persistent battle that would have only damaged HCPSS and our students.
How would you grade Mr. Martirano's performance and his reorganization of the central office?
Pena: One of the most important things that Dr. Martirano has brought to the county is a sense of hope to our school staff. Under Dr. Foose’s leadership, there was fear, staff did not feel that they could speak their mind or they may face retribution. So Dr. Martirano is rebuilding that trust with our teachers that is so important. While his idea to use Jump Start rather than the unpopular idea of redistricting high schools showed he was thinking outside of the box, it came at a time when he was seeking to become the permanent superintendent and may not have been the right decision for our students. He built a strong leadership team, something that was lacking previously by creating the Community Superintendents and adding a Director of Diversity. Due to the budget issues the system is facing, some central office staff are looking at layoffs and reassignments. This is unfortunate. I appreciate that Dr. Martirano is facing the budget problem and treating it seriously. HCPSS could not continue in the manner it had been working in terms of the budget.