With school board elections on the horizon, The Dagger invited all Harford County school board candidates to answer the same three questions designed to help voters in each council district evaluate their choices. Candidates were told that once responses were received from all participants they would be published by district, with answers unabridged to let the candidates communicate as directly as possible with the voters they seek to represent.
As a reminder, voters living in each of the county’s six council districts will elect their representative to the school board later this year. The process begins in June with the primary election to narrow down the field to two candidates in each district. The top two vote-getters in each district will then appear on the November ballot. Because school board elections in Maryland are non-partisan, voters do not have to be affiliated with a political party in order to vote for a school board candidate in the primary election. To find your council district, click here.
With thanks to all participants, we begin with District F (Havre de Grace/Abingdon/APG/Perryman/Belcamp), where incumbent school board member Tom Fitzpatrick faces challengers Joe Fleckenstein and Michael R. Hitchings.
Dagger: School board members often make decisions in areas where they may not have expertise, such as curriculum, facilities or the budget. Briefly describe the experience/skills you would bring to the school board and how you make decisions in areas outside your expertise.
Fitzpatrick: “I’ve been on the Harford County Board of Education for nearly two years now. During that time, we’ve hired a Superintendent, been through capital and operating budget negotiations, and been engaged in the political struggle over funding for our system in ways that no previous board ever has.
Those two years taught me a lot about Harford County politics and just how much is at stake over the issue of quality public education. It is one thing to know the people and know the structure, but quite another to see it, and work through it in action. Every day, I draw on the knowledge that I gained as I worked my way down that learning curve in our ongoing efforts to insure the future leaders of our community get the very best we can give them.
I’ve had a long and varied career in the private sector. As a project manager in the construction industry, I learned the value of negotiation and the art of dealing with people from all walks of life. Today, I work in the environmental field, working with regulators, engineers, and advocates in states throughout the East Coast. I get around a good bit, and I have the chance to see what people are doing outside of Harford county. Most of the jobs I’ve held in my life have come with direct responsibility for profit and loss, budgeting and financial management. I’ve had to learn to work with a wide variety of people in a wide variety of settings. That ability to recognize that different people have different agendas and points of view is essential in any job such as this one.
For many years, I have been an active participant in the civic life of Havre de Grace, where I played important roles on the Planning Commission, the Board of Appeals, and on various task forces. I was one of the founding members of Havre de Grace Main Street, and helped establish our Arts and Entertianment District. I’ve also served on the Board of the Susquehanna Museum of Havre de Grace, where I have given lectures, tours, done docent work, and helped research and design some of our exhibits. These experiences have helped me prepare for the larger task of helping lead Harford County Public Schools.”
Fleckenstein: “I bring three primary qualities to the School Board:
The first is integrity. I will do the right thing, when people are looking, and when they are not.
The second is a willingness to learn. As a long-time member of this community, I attended Harford County Public Schools from 1976-1989. My mother has been a volunteer for the teachers of Homestead/Wakefield Elementary in Bel Air for 32 years, and my niece is a Junior at Aberdeen High School. I want to see our teachers, parents and young people succeed!
I will work with the other Board Members, parents and officials, and exercise patience and good-listening skills. From my years in the work force and as a Governor in the public-speaking organization ‘Toastmasters’, I’ve learned to make decisions outside of my expertise, by identifying subject-matter experts in specific areas, and working closely with those individuals. “Trust, but verify”.
The third and final quality is dependability. I will attend the meetings, make time for this position, and find the answers to questions. It has been said that, “Half of life is showing-up”. Good attendance, a desire to work with others, and the ability to conduct research and ask questions will serve my constituents well. I am their servant.”
I have dedicated my life to the service of others. As a happily married father of three, I am involved in my community, volunteering for a number of programs, and seek every opportunity possible to improve the world around me for my children, and those around me.
As a graduate of Havre de Grace High School, I am dedicated to seeing the same school system serve my children just as well as it served me, if not better. I went on to graduate from St. Mary’s College of Maryland with a degree in Biology. I am currently seeking a Master of Science in Environmental Engineering and Science from Johns Hopkins University.
I have been involved in the Havre de Grace Parks & Recreation soccer program for the past eight years as a volunteer coach for a number of teams. Over the past few years, I have coached at least two teams in each of the fall and winter soccer seasons as well as volunteering additional time to support the set-up and preparation the fields throughout the season. In 2013, I was recognized by the Harford County Parks & Recreation Program as the recipient of the annual Jeff Berthney Coaches award recognizing coaches within the program that go above and beyond the typical call of duty.
I am also involved in the City of Havre de Grace having served on the Planning Commission from May 2011 through August 2012 followed by the Board of Appeals from August 2012 to present, while also actively participating in the City Council’s ad hoc sub-committee on traffic from July 2012 to present.
I am also very active in Susquehanna Lodge #130 of Ancient Free & Accepted Masons, having served as a line officer within the lodge for the past few years. I also donate my time to the Susquehanna Holding Company, serving as the Secretary to the Board of Directors.
I currently work for the federal government on Aberdeen Proving Ground serving as a project & program manager overseeing planning, design, and construction execution of a portfolio of over $500M in the world’s finest laboratory and research facilities as well as overseeing and coordinating a number of projects going through significant renovation, modernization, and retrofit. In my professional career, I am dedicated to ensuring projects are delivered within scope, on time, and within budget. My challenge is to take those projects that seem to be otherwise struggling, and turn them around to success stories.
I have spent my professional career understanding that I may [not] have all the answers to all of the questions asked, but I know that I can do my homework, seek out the best resources and knowledge bases, and find the appropriate answer in a timely and effective manner to support the decision making process. I commit to maintaining this perspective while serving on the Harford County Board of Education. With that in mind, I commit to bring my experience not only as a dedicated public servant, but also as a project & program manager to bear. My experience in leading teams has helped me to see that all perspectives are worth listening to and that it is often the quietest voice in a room that may bring the most valuable perspective to the table. Seek first to hear, then to be heard!”
Dagger: Please cite a previous decision by the Harford County Board of Education with which you either strongly agree or disagree, and why.
Fitzpatrick: “Of all the decisions this Board has taken since I took my seat in 2012, none gives me more pride, or instills more confidence in the future, than our decision to offer the permanent post of Superintendent to Barbara Canavan.
In a time when the structure and focus of public education is under severe challenge from many fronts, the need for a clear headed, charismatic, and forward thinking leader was paramount. Barbara Canavan enjoys overwhelming support from our staff, business leaders, teachers, and many parents. In her brief tenure as Acting Superintendent, she has improved morale throughout the system, and enrolled everyone in HCPS (including the Board) in the challenge to make our system lean, smart and focused on the future.
Of course, I am also happy the Board supported my efforts to obtain funding for the replacement of Havre de Grace High School. Needless to say, that was number one on my community’s list. I want to thank all my colleagues on the Board, our exceptional staff, Mayor Dougherty and his staff, Councilwoman Mary Ann Lisanti (who spoke for us at the Board of Pubic Works) , City Councilman David Glen, and David Craig for their efforts as well.
Now that we’re on our way, I will be turning my efforts toward helping lead the effort to spec the new building and get it done.
No one in District F should assume that this will be my only focus.
Many schools on the east side of our County have gone too long neglected and underequipped for tomorrow’s challenges. In my next term, I plan on focusing on working to replace another Harford County school that desperately needs updating, William Paca/Old Post.”
Fleckenstein: “On a positive note, it seems that the Harford County Board of Education (BOE) has made a fine choice in selecting the new Superintendent of Harford County Public Schools. Board members and citizens expressed their confidence in the Superintendent’s leadership skills and work ethic. In terms of decisions that the BOE could have improved upon, the BOE should have adopted a legislative platform that took the role of protecting parental rights and keeping control of education local, more seriously.”
Hitchings: I understand that the Board of Education is dedicated to bettering the program for all students and educators within the Harford County Public Schools system. I also understand that these Board members must often make very difficult choices when rendering decisions or making programmatic changes. I plan to bring my professional and personal experiences to the Board in order to enhance their ability to see a broader perspective, and hear from additional voices and insights that have perhaps been overlooked in the past.
I trust that the Boards of past and present did what they did with the best interests of students and educators in mind. I do not fault them for decisions which did not result in perfectly executed operations. They have made adjustments and changes to correct decisions that were not well received, and justified those that they must continue to uphold. As a Board member, I will continue to maintain this position, while seeking to minimize any potential exposure from rendered decisions that may result in unintended consequences or negative public reception.
Dagger: Maryland school boards are charged with certain responsibilities. Among them are: Hiring the superintendent, setting capital and operating budget priorities, determining school attendance boundaries, and formulating school policies. Looking ahead, what issues within the board’s purview are of specific interest or concern to you and why? Please cite two issues.
Fitzpatrick: One of my colleagues recently remarked that Harford County “needs to have a conversation” about the role of public education in our community. I couldn’t agree more. Nothing reflects a county’s commitment to its economic future or to the well being of its children and young people than the quality of its public education system. Throughout the nation, the districts with the best schools, are the ones that are well funded and broadly supported by the community.
In the last few years, the commitment had become in doubt. For the past five years, leaders have pointed to “maintenance of effort” as evidence of their commitment, as if doing the minimum was sufficient to secure our youth good jobs in a prosperous community in the future. Our system has felt the effects, as teacher pay has been flat for five years, people are leaving to take jobs in surrounding counties, class sizes are increasing, and programs are being cut.
This is not the future that I envision for my community or for Harford County Public Schools. I intend to bring my experience as a board member to the fight for increased funding and for more support for our schools. It may be a cliché to say that our schools are our future, but it’s also fact.
This is more than just about money and pay. It’s all about programs as well. Delegate Mary Dulaney James is leading an effort to bring training for advanced manufacturing jobs to the county. Delegate Impallaria is championing efforts to strengthen vocational training as well. We have supported those efforts in Annapolis, and we look toward our leaders to help us work toward those goals by helping us finance these initiatives.”
Fleckenstein: “I believe in local control of our public education system, with very little interference from Annapolis and Washington, DC. Unfortunately, as the state expands its power, control at the local (Harford)-level suffers.
Money is already tight, due to unfunded mandates from Annapolis. These mandates really make it difficult to increase teacher salaries. With rising inflation, the teachers need higher salaries just to keep-up with their personal bills and expenses.
Along comes Common Core, PARCC [testing], a troubled pension system, OPEB [Other Post-Employment Benefits], and new student discipline policies. The Harford County Board of Education, teachers and parents are not responsible for these burdensome new requirements. These things cost money – lots of money – and we in Harford County really don’t want these financial hardships. Increasing bureaucracy, rules and regulations from outside of our county serve to drive-up costs, and remove our voices from the process.
The rights of parents are most important to me, and I will choose parents over bad government every single time.”
Hitchings: “1. Proper establishment and execution of the Capital Budget program to support the planning, design, and construction of Harford County Public Schools in keeping with the life cycle plans established for the same. As a project and program manager within the federal government who supports the planning, design and construction execution of major federal facilities, I have seen first hand the results of poor life cycle implementation of capital programs. For instance, as described above, schools, like most industrial and commercial facilities are designed with life cycles of 50 years, with a mid-cycle renovation planned at the 25-year mark. Harford County Public Schools has over 50 schools in the program. If at least one new school is not opened every year (replacing an old/spent school building), with at least one complete renovation not completed every year, then the Capital program is either improperly structured, inadequately supported, or set for failure. From my observations of the current program of schools, a majority of the existing schools are well overdue for replacement, and those that are not nearing the end of their functional life cycle, are typically in need of a comprehensive renovation to bring them up to current code and technology standards indicative of modern facilities. This leads to a budgetary bias where the Capital program is set to be saddled with a major fiscal requirement in the next 15-20 years to support replacement of a number of schools that cannot support their occupants due to disrepair and age. This program, and the County cannot afford to wait until 2025, at which time they will need to replace about 25% of their schools in a period of 5 years.
2. Too often local programs hold too tight to the sense of “need” to establish their own standards forsake of the lessons learned from their peers. In other words, programs tend to miss the forest for the trees. In the case of the Common Core State Standards (or College & Career Readiness State Standards), neighboring Districts have established and currently execute their curriculum in keeping with these standards. However, in some cases, Harford County Public Schools has not yet fully established implemented Common Core curriculum for these standards. My efforts would be to support learning from one another in efforts to provide peer to peer relationships that will strengthen all parties involved. There are plenty of opportunities to share from one another in the mutual benefit of all, especially understanding that it will strengthen the learning environment for the students statewide, thereby positioning HCPS and Maryland as best school system in the nation, without doubt.”