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?
Mackey: Our students do not want to feel as though their school is a prison. Security measures such as metal detectors, pat-downs, and clear backpacks provide false senses of security and pose the potential to increase student, educator, and community anxiety levels; I oppose the implementation of any and all measures that will contribute to a false sense of security and rob our schools of their positive learning atmosphere. School safety is priority #1 of our campaign. Mass shootings are a small portion of the many school safety concerns that face our students each day. HCPSS must work diligently to increase the number of mental health professionals in our schools to take a proactive approach to school safety by encouraging positive mental and emotional health amongst students and staff. Concurrently, it is important to note that we live in different times and may have to explore the expansion of armed security in our school facilities. Any expansion of armed security must be intimately familiar with real tensions between communities of color and the law enforcement community. Increased security should be administered through our School Resource Officer (SRO) program with the Howard County Police Department to ensure our most student-centered, culturally competent officers are those spending time in our schools. Arming educators is not a realistic or responsible option in our pursuit of increased security.
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?
Mackey: The Howard County Public School System is facing serious overcrowding especially in the eastern part of the County. Redistricting is one of a multitude of necessary initiatives required to reduce overcrowding. Like many members of the community I was disappointed that more significant redistricting was not undertaken by the Board of Education in 2017. Redistricting is a school safety issue - overcrowded schools are inherently unsafe and every effort to bring our schools to appropriate attendance levels in a timely manner will be important for the new Board. With the site for High School 13 now selected in Jessup the new Board of Education must initiate the process for redistricting that trends westward, utilizes the new anticipated High School 13 district, and prioritizes brick and mortar classrooms over portable classrooms. The School System and community need to develop a phased approach to redistricting that minimizes effects on current students, especially our high school students. Unfortunately, redistricting is a rather controversial topic; it is critical that we elect members of the Board of Education who are able to make difficult decisions. Members of the Board of Education must understand the importance of listening to community input while remaining true to their commitment to all 55,000+ students of the Howard County Public School System. Beyond redistricting, HCPSS needs to vigorously advocate for continued capital project needs. With proper planning as well as utilization of Howard County’s newly updated Adequate Public Facilities Ordinance relief for overcrowding is on the horizon.
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?
Mackey: Creating an environment that encourages positive mental and emotional health for our students and educators is of utmost importance - I believe a well-balanced approach to school safety is incomplete without strong investments in social workers and support staff and believe this initiative is prudent. Research suggests that smaller class sizes help student comprehension and educator success. The School System is dealing with an operating deficit; I believe that every effort should be made to avoid cuts at the confluence of dollars and classrooms, including class size. Finally, all programming within HCPSS needs to be evaluated for its effectiveness to ensure that initiatives are having the desired effect in the classroom. The Board of Education must make all decisions based on data; world language is no exception. Research has shown that introducing students to foreign language education at a young age benefits them in many ways. While it is important to recognize that some students found great success in the program, HCPSS’s implementation of the world language program was not helping our students as expected. The brief timeline within which our elementary world language program was introduced and promptly ended is regrettable; the program as a whole was not properly piloted and evaluated before its expansion to eight schools. This underscores the importance of program evaluation. In the future all system-wide initiatives must be research-based, piloted, and evaluated for their effectiveness so that innovation within the system can occur while providing a consistent education experience for students and staff.
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?
Mackey: The primary contributing factor to the large health and dental fund deficit is a failure by HCPSS to contribute a contractually obligated amount into the fund to cover costs. Starting over a decade ago, funds have been continually diverted from the health and dental fund to initiate other programming, a habit that continues to manifest itself in the larger overall operating budget deficit. A one-time contribution from the County will be necessary to close the fund deficit but HCPSS must first work to address the operating deficit to ensure that a further bailout is not necessary in the coming years. The Howard County Education Association understands the contractual obligations of both educators and their employer. Asking educators to pay higher insurance rates to cover the portion of the deficit caused by HCPSS’s failure to honor its contractual obligations should not be considered. If increased healthcare costs are found to be associated with the fund deficit a proportional increase of health insurance rates would be fair and likely warranted pending negotiation.
How would you evaluate HCPS' efforts to reduce achievement gaps between students of different races and backgrounds? Does more need to be done?
Mackey: Data shows that there is vast room for improvement in closing the achievement gap. To start, it is important to note that the achievement gap is simply a manifestation of an underlying opportunity gap. We must work to ensure that we provide opportunities to our students that give them the ability to succeed in light of their circumstances regardless of outside factors. This includes turning our focus to our most vulnerable youth at a young age to ensure they are keeping up with their peers. As a Senior in high school I aided in a tenth grade on-grade-level English class and witnessed first-hand vast injustice of our school system under-serving and ultimately failing many students, particularly students of color and students with disabilities. The enormous gap present between AP/GT courses and on-grade-level courses was shocking. Since that year, equity has been and will continue to be in the forefront of my mind. Ensuring equitable opportunity for all students will require HCPSS to engage communities that have been historically underserved by the education system, come to terms with those failures, and provide a concrete and earnest effort to presume competence and close the achievement gap. This will require better collection, analysis, and use of data. It will also require programmatic differences between our higher and lower achieving schools; members of the Board of Education must be fierce advocates for defending equity.
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?
Mackey: Maryland is one of the only, if not the only, state that does not grant local boards of education the authority to terminate their superintendents for cause. This law must be changed in Annapolis in order to ensure no county is placed in the position in which Howard County found itself in early 2017. Due to current law buying Dr. Foose out of her contract was the only option available. Reaching the agreement that led to Dr. Foose’s resignation was absolutely necessary. The Howard County Public School System was in desperate need of more transparent, community-oriented leadership. Dr. Foose’s departure triggered an immediate release in funding from the State government that was previously being held due to suspected financial mismanagement under Dr. Foose. Further, Dr. Foose’s departure has allowed a more responsible Board of Education to address funding problems that were perpetuated under the previous administration. In order to ensure HCPSS has a strong future the new Board of Education must identify ways that our previous administration exploited policy to debase trust between the school system and the community and close loopholes in policy, codifying safeguards to avoid the mistakes of our past. The community must come together to move past what has happened and focus on our collective future. While remaining conscious of our past is important, focusing on the future with optimism and inclusivity needs to remain at the forefront of all activities of the Howard County Public School System.
How would you grade Mr. Martirano's performance and his reorganization of the central office?
Mackey: Dr. Martirano inherited the most difficult job in the County and has handled himself well. He has been proactive in restoring community trust and confronting the realities of our past. He is student-centered and enjoys visiting our schools. He is a strong leader, but this trait is as much an asset as it is a trait that requires attention. I would like to see Dr. Martirano improve his communication with the Board of Education. During large decision making processes, specifically redistricting, Dr. Martirano has a tendency to take an executive-level course of action and propose plans to the public without proper consultation with the Board of Education. This creates more difficulty navigating complex issues as the Superintendent’s proposals can leave the Board of Education to deal with difficult realities not addressed by preliminary plans released by the Superintendent. This emphasizes the importance of the check-and-balance relationship that is required between the Board of Education and the Superintendent. The restructuring of Central Office has shown some promise but concerns over high Central Office salaries persist and additional effort will be necessary to drive cultural change within Central Office. Dr. Martirano is off to an excellent start. With more clear communication of expectations between the Board of Education and the Superintendent I believe he will find great success in turning HCPSS into an even stronger institution of integrity. I look forward to the opportunity to work with him in the coming years.