What's at Stake in the Increasingly Politicized Howard County Board of Education Elections

The Howard County Board of Education is supposed to be non-partisan. But, as the November general election approaches, partisan ideologies have characterized the races deciding who will be making education decisions in our county. In three of the five district races on the ballot this November, progressive educational equity advocates have rallied around one of the candidates in the election (Matthew Molyett in D1, Antonia Watts in D2, and Jen Mallo in D4) while those opposed to efforts to desegregate Howard County schools have embraced the other (Christina Delmont-Small in D1, Larry Pretlow in D2, and Sezin Palmer in D4).


Not only are these races being defined by the political ideologies of the candidates' supporters, but they are also, for the first time, separated by geographic region. Starting this election cycle, Howard County residents are casting ballots for the Board of Education based on where they live in the county, as the five BOE seats up for grabs this year will be elected by voters of individual County Council Districts. The remaining two positions on the 7 member board are at-large positions, elected by the entirety of the county, but these seats are not up for election this cycle. By virtue of being the highest vote-getters in the 2018 contest, current Board co-chair Vicky Cutroneo and Board member Dr. Chao Wu are the current at-large members and will continue to serve through 2022.

In a Q&A prior to the primary election, Jen Mallo, who is up for re-election in District 4, told The Merriweather Post "As we change from electing school board members from the county at large to elections based on individual districts, one of my fears is that Board members will become more provincial – elevating the needs of their individual districts over the needs of the system as a whole."


If these fears come to be realized and board members do begin focusing primarily on the issues important to the residents of the district in which they live; then Western Howard County, inclusive of River Hill, is already certain to have at least three board members sympathetic to their cause. That is because the two at-large members and whomever wins the District 5 seat will reside in this area.


For her part, Cutroneo is a free thinker who finds the politicization of the school board races depressing, and recently posted a reminder on Facebook that "BOE members serve the Howard County Community... not just the people/political party that likes you or supports you". Nonetheless, Cutroneo voted against last year's redistricting and, as she told The Merriweather Post, "supports independently operated public charter schools that are accountable to the BOE in accordance with HCPSS Board Policy 10040. She added that she "is not in support of diversion of public funding to private schools or entities."


All this is adding up to a Board of Education election that is increasingly consequential as the county splits on issues such as redistricting; when and under what circumstances will it be safe for students, teachers, and faculty to return to school; budgetary priorities; and school choice. Proponents of educational equity, whom generally frequent the liberal-leaning HoCo School Interest Facebook group, generally support candidates who policies are focused on ensuring every student has access to the educational resources and rigor they need no matter their background or where they live. On the other hand, the Howard County Neighbors United Facebook group was born out of an opposition group to last fall's redistricting, and its contributors are supportive of candidates's who oppose redistricting as a means to address inequalities in the distribution of students impacted by poverty.


District 5 candidate Dr. Yun Lu seems a favorite to prevail in her race against former BOE board member Cindy Vallancuit given her strong showing in the June primary election and overwhelming fundraising advantage. If Lu joins Wu and Cutroneo on the board, it would take only one more victory by a candidate favored by the Neighbors United collation to ensure their preferred candidates control the majority of the school board.


The Neighbors United supporters will not find such a candidate in District 3, as finalists Jolene Mosley and Tom Heffner share similar ideologies and both support equity education policies. The remaining three races - in Districts 1, 2, and 4 - are by far, the most contentious and where the action is. In District 1, incumbent Christina Delmont-Small is running against Matthew Molyett. In District 2, Larry Pretlow battles Antonia Watts. Finally, the District 4 race pits Mallo against challenger Sezin Palmer, though Dr. Julie Hotopp is running a long shot write-in campaign as a centralist who bemoans the politicization of these elections.


Proponents of educational equity policies support the candidacy of Molyett, Watts, and Mallo. Individuals who oppose redistricting and are clamoring for schools to re-open in person as soon as possible are rallying around Delmont-Small, Pretlow, and Palmer. The majority of the current Board of Ed is made up by 4 members (Chair Mavis Ellis, Sabina Taj, Mallo and Kirsten Coombs) who generally caucus together on issues related to equity; but that could change unless all 3 of Molyett, Watts, and Mallo prevail.


But it's not just social media vitriol defining these battles. A tremendous amount of campaign contributions have poured into the race, as meticulously tracked by Scott Ewart of the Scott E Blog. The tables below summarizes the total campaign contributions received by each of the candidates in the General Election through the most recent August 25 reporting deadline.

The district election format was supposed to ensure that constituents would focus only on the race in their own district, but the reality is far different, as significant financial support has poured into BOE races from donors who reside in outside districts, as recently uncovered by Howard County Progress Report blogger Jenny Solpietro.


To date, the largest financial contributor to the Board of Education campaigns is the Chinese American Parent Association (CAPA), which has contributed over $12,000 in total to the campaigns of Sezin Palmer ($6,000), Christina Delmont-Small ($3,380), and Yun Lu ($3,000). CAPA strongly opposed the Superintendent Proposed Attendance Area Adjustment Plan last summer and supports the affirmative action lawsuit against Harvard aiming to remove the consideration of race in college and university admissions that threatens the ability of higher education Institutions across the county to create diverse communities essential to their educational mission and success of their students; a case that may ultimately be heard by the U.S. Supreme Court.


Another notably contributor to the Board of Education races is the Howard Research & Development Corporation, a wholly-owned subsidiary of the Howard Hughes Corporation that is responsible for the redevelopment of Downtown Columbia. The entity recently contributed $500 to Watts and had previously provided an in-kind contribution of rental space to Mallo. Redistricting opponents conspire that these contributions demonstrate developers' attempts to influence educational policy for housing developer's benefit without considering developers and equity proponents shared interest in social-economically and racially diverse neighborhoods that offer affordable housing options and high quality public schools.


Steven Keller, a leader of the opposition group to last year's redistricting and administer of the Howard County Neighbors United Facebook page, makes his anti-housing bias clear when he describes his stance on redistricting as a "terrible periodic necessity to relieve overcrowding at certain schools due to the frequent and relentless new housing developments that continue to be approved by the Howard County government and believes that different solutions should be pursued to solve social concerns such as concentrated FARM students at particular schools"


One of those alternative solutions that may be considered if the Neighbors United candidates take majority control of the school board is school choice; the signatures school issue championed by US Education Secretary Betsy DeVos. School choice got prime-time attention during last week's Republican National Convention as Donald Trump makes the issue a focal point of his reelection bid. School choice encompasses a wide variety of programs (such as school vouchers, open enrollment laws, public charter schools, and magnet schools) that allows public education funds to follow students to a school of their choosing. In Howard County, any school choice measures are likely to start with magnet schools or public charter schools: publicly-funded, but independently operated schools. HCPSS currently does not have any charter schools, but there is currently an open application process to consider charter applications in the county that are submitted by April 30, 2021.

Supporters of public charter schools believe that it gives parents more control over their child's education and expands alternatives to traditional public schools for children who are assigned to poor-performing neighborhood schools. Opponents are concerned that charter schools take funding away from traditional public schools and deplete their already strained resources while eroding neighborhood cohesiveness and permitting independently run schools to operate without the same level of accountability, transparency, or union protections of traditional public schools.


Ultimately, as the United States grapples with systemic racism and focuses on finding lasting solutions to addressing economic and racial inequalities, this Board of Education election is our own local referendum on who we are and what we desire our suburban county to be. Supporters of Rouse's vision of Columbia as a culturally diverse integrated city where children flourish in neighborhood schools alongside peers of different economic, racial, and cultural backgrounds will likely find themselves aligning with the candidacy of Molyett, Watts, and Mallo. Those who support the status quo of Howard County as an increasingly segregated community separated along an east/west, left/right, and rich/poor spectrum are more likely to support Delmont-Small, Pretlow, and Palmer. The choice is ours.

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