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District 4 – 2020 Howard County Board of Education Primary Election Voters’ Guide

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As a service to our readers, The Business Monthly asked Howard County Board of Education candidates running in the 2020 Primary Election to provide responses to a short questionnaire. Their unedited responses follow. This Voters’ Guide includes only the candidates running in the primary election.

Updated 5/26/2020 to add Matt Levine’s responses.

District 4

Kirsten Coombs (Incumbent)

What will be your number one priority as a member of the Board of Education?

I cannot narrow to one priority, but I believe these two are inextricably linked.

Improving educational outcomes for all students – Whether they receive special education services, participate in G/T courses, or have just entered HCPSS, they deserve access to high-quality educators and programs. Empowering educators – We must solicit and welcome educators’ voices. They must have the freedom to contribute their input on programmatic decisions as they understand the daily classroom impacts. They do amazing things every day and we should lift them up for the benefit of the system and their professional development. Our educators are the experts in their field and should be treated with respect. Utilizing our own resources should be prioritized over seeking outside consultants costing exorbitant amounts.

What budget experience do you have that will help the Howard County Public School System?

Three years on the Board have taught me a lot about the function of a Board and the daily happenings of a large school system. I worked in Accounting & Finance for 15+ years and can analyze budget and financial documents to ask informed questions. As Chair of the Legislative Committee, I’ve built strong bipartisan relationships with legislators, which led to more local control on areas like superintendency contracts. In addition, I work well with people through collaboration, rather than intimidation, to understand multiple perspectives. Our current deficit requires assistance from the County as we are not able to levy taxes or raise revenues in a significant manner to pay down the shortfall. I have been advocating for assistance from the County Executive and Council to address it. We should not address the deficit by forcing current employees to pay for past initiatives that diverted funds away from the Health Fund.

What changes will you offer to how Title 1 funding is being used?

Elementary investments are foundational, so I support the majority of Title I funding going to the highest-need elementary schools first. In visiting middle schools, I recognize the significant unmet needs our 6th-8th grade students are facing at a critical point in their development. Principals and administrators have the best insight into the usage of Title I funds in their buildings, and we should rely on their recommendations when choosing how to invest our Title I funds. Additionally, HCPSS should routinely analyze spending patterns across Title I schools and programs using Title I dollars to determine if outcomes are reaching our target goals. These data and analyses should be comprehensive and transparent, including quantifiable metrics, such as KPIs, as well as staff and community input and feedback.


Matt Levine (added 5/26/2020)

What will be your number one priority as a member of the Board of Education?

As a dyslexic learner myself and now a dad to two elementary school kids who have been diagnosed (outside of HCPSSS) with dyslexia, I have been fighting for years to get my kids the necessary supports they need, through structured literacy and acknowledgment of their dyslexia, at their school. The redistricting was the last straw for me, but I had been growing increasingly frustrated with the state of HCPSS budget and priorities for the last few years. I simply cannot understand how we spend so much money per student and continue to need to make painful cuts to critical programs like technology and paraeducators and special education supports year after year. If elected, my priority as a Board member will be to eliminate bureaucratic bloat in the Central Office and prioritize spending inside of classrooms (and now with distance learning, making sure all kids and teachers are getting what they need to succeed online, including the special education students who will require learning supports.

What budget experience do you have that will help the Howard County Public School System?

I have been a member of my Columbia Village Board for the past two years, which has given me an inside look at how many County budget processes are taking place. I also run my own company, and we successfully employ 180+ people. So, I am very familiar with budgets and maximizing returns on investment. We can see now how short-sighted the recent cuts to Technology education have been, since we had to pivot so quickly to online learning and it has had too many challenges for a county like ours, with so many technical professional parents in our community. For the last couple of years, I had been volunteering with the Tech ed classes at my kids’ school, so I could see how poorly that critical function has been run in HCPSS. Clearly, the spending priorities of the current Board of Education are not aligned with what our community demands and what our students and teachers need to succeed and be well trained for the jobs of tomorrow, which will undoubtedly rely on a strong technical foundation in most career fields.

What changes will you offer to how Title 1 funding is being used?

I have looked extensively at what we do and what we do not do for Title 1 schools at HCPSS. For example, did you know there is an After School Snack program and a Dinner program available for schools with more than 50 percent FARM rates? (The USDA runs programs for both After School Snack and Adult and Child food programs with include dinner.) I want to partner with the County Parks and Rec and community groups to create a robust after-school program to include sports and homework programs that would meet these eligibility rules. Kids would be safe at school while their parents worked, have a safe place to do homework and get tutoring help, get some physical energy out through programs like sports and dance and fitness, and also get critical nutritional support. I have been a wrestling coach for years and know that we could tap into community groups and coaches to provide a great program at our local, neighborhood schools. I would expect that the financial strains on families due to COVID will result in an even greater need for these critical supports for County families.


Jen Mallo (Incumbent)

What will be your number one priority as a member of the Board of Education?

The number one priority of all Board of Education members today should be supporting students and staff through the coronavirus pandemic. This pandemic is unlike any challenge that we have faced in the past. We must recognize and minimize the risks and dangers of the coronavirus, which is expected to impact our community for years. My priority is to work with the Superintendent to develop robust, flexible models for the delivery of instruction. These models must protect students and staff from hazardous exposure while delivering effective instruction either in-person or via distance learning. As the schools are the economic driver of the county, we must evolve with the new environment while continue to provide high-quality schooling to all our students.

What budget experience do you have that will help the Howard County Public School System?

As a Board of Education member, I have overseen and voted on two HCPSS budgets. I have sat on the County Executive’s Spending Affordability Committee. I have managed multiple budgets of non-profits, successfully developed and executed multiple grant budgets, PTA budgets, and oversaw the budgeting and management of a cooperative preschool. My undergraduate degree is in Economics and have professional experience in data analytics and research. I have done extensive data analysis during the HCPSS budgeting process to comprehensively evaluate the Superintendent’s recommendations. I have also worked collaboratively with the finance personnel to develop new budget reporting mechanisms that allow for better evaluation of spending and budget compliance to ensure transparency and accountability.

What changes will you offer to how Title 1 funding is being used?

I do not believe that we should change how Title 1 funding is allocated. Title 1 funding is only 0.5 percent of the total operating budget of the school system ($5.5M). If we were to disperse the funding on a per pupil basis instead of by school where poverty and need is concentrated, then we effectively dilute the pool of resources and personnel. There are two models of Title 1 services – a school-based approach or an individual-student based approach. The student-based approach lacks economies of scale and can only provide services to income eligible students whether they have an academic need or not. The school-based approach allows for services to be provided to students who need support, even if their family is just barely above federal poverty levels. We also need to continue to use Title 1 funds compliant with strict federal guidelines and reporting requirements.


Daniel J. Margolis

No response.


Sezin Palmer

What will be your number one priority as a member of the Board of Education?

Given the current pandemic and the need for distance learning, I expect that even next year, as a BOE member my top priority will be ensuring students are learning in a healthy and supportive environment where their educational needs are being met. In terms of normal operations, my number one priority will be ensuring resources are allocated to programs and positions that best align with demonstrated educational outcomes for students, within current budgetary constraints. This will require clarity and transparency in identifying gaps, articulating expectations and metrics, assessing performance, and making data-driven decisions. I will focus on ensuring sufficient numbers of educators with proper training for special education while maintaining class sizes for general education and providing for continuation of all gifted and talented programs. I will seek to accomplish this by redirecting funds from administration, central office and other activities that do not directly align to educational outcomes.

What budget experience do you have that will help the Howard County Public School System?

I have successfully led multi-million dollar organizations for over a decade and my current role as an executive in a >$1B organization has afforded me the opportunity to understand how to run large, dynamic and complex organizations. I have extensive experience in prioritizing competing needs and making difficult decisions in resource-limited environments. I have to continuously balance competing interests across organizations including prioritizing resources across various activities ranging from training and education, material purchases, capital expenditures, and investments into future capabilities. Sound decision-making requires accurate data, data analysis and the ability to assess the impact and risks associated with those decisions. These are required attributes of successful leaders and I have a track record of success in this area.

What changes will you offer to how Title 1 funding is being used?

I would examine changes to Title I funding allocation in Howard County to move from a school-wide model to a targeted approach that better supports disadvantaged students. We must direct these resources to the most disadvantaged students and focus on providing the appropriate type of support, including tutoring and additional instruction, for them to be successful. Simply spreading it across an entire school dilutes the impact of the resources for the most disadvantaged students. Also, Title I funds are currently used for a wide range of activities, including general educator training and other activities that have not been effective in improving educational outcomes for the most disadvantaged students. I would advocate using funds only for targeted activities that correspond to improved educational outcomes.

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