School uniforms, vocational training, fluff courses, and flat screen TVs were among the wide range of topics covered by the candidates running for the Harford County Board of Education in District A (Edgewood/Joppa), at an August 17 forum hosted by the Harford County Council of PTA.
Charter schools and a policy on extra-curricular activities also prompted impromptu debates between Bob Frisch, a social studies teacher in Baltimore County Public Schools and Jansen Robinson, a local business owner and physical security specialist for the federal government. A third candidate, Jerome Foster was a no-show for the forum. Pastor Tony McDonald recently dropped out of what was originally a four-man race.
Before an audience of about 40 forum attendees at Joppatowne High School, HCCPTA Vice-President of Legislation Emily Gudel moderated as Frisch and Robinson fielded a total of sixteen questions, some prepared by the PTA, some submitted in writing by audience members (me included).
The following is a play-by-play of some of the highlights:
In his opening statement, Frisch said he had a passion for teaching and was not a politician who was planning to use the school board as a stepping stone. He said the tipping point in his decision to run was finding out he was going to be a new grandparent.
Robinson said he was running because he cares about the community, which he said he had demonstrated over the past five years as chairman of the Edgewood Community Council.
In response to a question about projected excess capacity at the new Edgewood High School, Frisch said the capacity would accommodate growth from BRAC. “It’s the Taj Mahal,” he said, adding that he appreciated the first class facility, but some of the money could have been used elsewhere in the system.
Robinson said that excess space at Edgewood High could be used to expand vocational and technical training opportunities for students.
A question about whether educational programs should be the same at all schools generated agreement from both candidates, and a little jab from Frisch.
Robinson was first to respond, saying “I don’t think we should have a one-size-fits-all mentality. I don’t care what’s in Fallston, I’m concerned about Joppa and Edgewood,” and adding that the community should be involved in curriculum decisions. (Robinson later said that he would work with board members from other districts, each of whom would know their district best.)
Frisch responded: “Jansen, I appreciate you looking at my position paper” and went on to call for more vocational training. Frisch said his son was an electrician and, “He makes more money than I do!” Frisch also called the four period block schedule a mistake.
Both candidates bemoaned the disparities in test scores among schools in Harford County. Frisch decried a “cookie-cutter” approach, saying instruction should be tailored to students’ needs and noting the failure to make Adequate Yearly Progress at Magnolia Elementary and William Paca/Old Post Road.
Robinson said that demographics were not the only cause of disparities in test scores, as some successful schools had demonstrated, and he cited research on the importance of parental involvement. Both candidates called for better leadership from the school board.
Universal pre-K got big a thumbs-up from Robinson, who said that pre-K laid the foundation for success and failure early on meant “no hope” for the future.
Frisch said he was not opposed to universal pre-K, as long as funding was available. He noted that schools now have to qualify to offer pre-K, based on the percentage of students receiving free and reduced meals.
Starkly opposing views on charter schools got the first debate rolling:
Frisch opposed charter schools, saying they were a “draw on limited resources” and they created an opportunity for some people to leave the system.
Robinson said he supported public charter schools, suggesting themed programs such as alternative education. Robinson added, “I don’t have a problem with competition. This is about children, not about a system.”
The next question was about the school board’s role in curriculum, which prompted Robinson to call for more community involvement, adding that stronger partnerships would create fewer problems. Robinson said, “The board made the decision about the four period block schedule and the community is unhappy.”
Frisch took his next turn to come back at Robinson, saying there was already an alternative education program in HCPS, which he said was “very successful.”
Regarding curriculum, Frisch said the school board needed to be more involved and he had experience with social studies and special education curriculum. Taking aim at a controversial program known as Everyday Math, Frisch said a teacher’s perspective was needed on the school board to determine what “looks good and paper, but doesn’t work in the classroom.” Frisch also cited the high school course, Living in a Contemporary World as one to review, saying “We need to get away from fluff courses.”
Another debate centered on a school system policy that bars high school students who fail a class from participating in extra-curricular activities. Frisch was in full support, saying the school system had to focus on education and that most students will not play team sports after high school, but they will need an education to get a job.
Robinson favored a review of the policy, noting that over half the students at Joppatowne High were disqualified from after-school activities and were therefore unsupervised until parents came home from work. Robinson said the time between 2-7 p.m. was when crime increased.
Frisch countered that most of the students in question were failing more than one class and that there was an appeals process for special circumstances. Robinson retorted, saying the issue demonstrated the need for a unique understanding of the community and a look at how the policy may be contributing to kids getting into trouble, adding, “A lot of people want to be tough, but is it smart?”
Frisch had the last word, saying that the policy worked as a powerful motivator in Baltimore County Public Schools and “We can’t keep making excuses and lowering the bar. We have to set standards and accountability for actions and inaction.”
A question about teacher salaries prompted Frisch to say that choices had to be made. “When I walk into [the new] Edgewood High School and I see flat screen TVs, I see waste.”, Frisch said, adding that student performance used to rank higher in the state and while HCPS was still one of the best, “you get what you pay for.”
Robinson said public safety and education were the most important issues in the county. He cited his experience managing budgets and said that after working with the community to identify savings, he would advocate for county funding for “what we need, versus what we want”.
Salaries for school board members were a non-starter for both candidates, who stressed their respective histories as volunteers. Robinson called for term limits, which Frisch said was already built into the law (the limit is for two consecutive terms).
Both candidates support school uniforms. Frisch said it put the focus on education, adding, “I feel sorry for some young men, trying to pay attention [in school], with the way some young ladies dress.” Robinson agreed, but added that uniforms were not a “silver bullet” and had to be part of an overall plan.
Asked how curriculum could be tailored in light of federal and state mandates, Robinson emphasized community involvement, a theme he emphasized repeatedly. Frisch railed against mandates that forced teachers into stay on a strict schedule. “Classroom teachers are screaming for Washington and Annapolis and Harford County Public Schools to get off their backs and let them do what they’re paid and trained to do.” He said that local control would lead to better results, citing his own classroom experience.
Robinson emphasized his background as a 20-year Edgewood resident and a veteran with a master’s degree in public administration who sent three children through HCPS. He said he had worked with Washington DC public schools; as a youth counselor at the Hickey school (the detention center for young men and boys awaiting trial in Maryland); as a substitute teacher in Joppa and Edgewood, and as chairman of the Edgewood Community Council. “I look at this as a job interview. Check my references…I am highly qualified for this position.”
Frisch urged voters to take the election seriously and to look closely at experience and beyond professional resumes for a candidate the voters could trust. He said he was not an education bureaucrat and his perspective as a classroom teacher was currently missing on the board, concluding, “I am the best candidate.”
The Harford County Council of PTA is sponsoring a series of forums for candidates in each district where elections will take place in the fall. The District B (Fallston/Abingdon) forum is planned for August 23 at Fallston HS from 7 – 9 p.m. The District D (North Harford) forum is set for August 24 at North Harford High. HCCPTA also sent a questionnaire to all candidates. Responses can be viewed on line at http://hccpta.org/candidatesforum/