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St. Mary’s County Board of Education candidate Joel Rose traded jabs at a forum last week with incumbent Mary Washington, who in turn questioned Rose’s ability to dedicate himself to the school board while on active duty with the Air Force.

The sharp exchange began when Rose recalled Washington saying in an interview two years ago while campaigning for county commissioner that she had accomplished all she could at the school board level. Washington lost the race for commissioner to Commissioner Todd Morgan (R).

“She felt she had done all she could do on the board,” Rose said during Thursday’s forum at Leonardtown High School.

Washington defended her aspiration for higher office in her closing statement, saying, “I had the courage to step up to the plate to run for the board of county commissioners” and to serve the county in another capacity. “Would my opponent turn down a chance to move up a rank?” Washington asked.

Earlier in the forum, Washington said she has only one cause she serves, referring to her 16 years on the school board. She said that Rose, who serves as a special missions flight attendant with the U.S. Air Force, could have to choose between his service to the military and his time with the school board.

Rose said in an interview later that his position is unique in the military and he has little or no chance of being deployed overseas. He said he tends to high-ranking elected officials and other VIPs, including Michelle Obama, during flights.

“I bring the missing link. There is no parent on the board of education,” Rose said at the forum last Thursday. “I don’t have to go out to volunteer to get the information. I get it every single night at the dinner table.”

Brooke Matthews, the school board member representing northern St. Mary’s, has a daughter who started kindergarten this year at Dynard Elementary School. Matthews is not up for re-election this year.

Rose said Tuesday he was unaware of Matthews’ child, who was not attending public school when the campaign began, and that he would stop saying there is no parent on the board.

“I consider the views of all children, not just my own,” Washington said Thursday night. In her closing statement, she questioned whether her opponent thinks that the elderly or people who never had children should not be allowed to run for school board. If that is the case, Washington said, “That’s un-American.”

At the same forum, school board candidate James Tomasic last week tried to separate himself from incumbent Marilyn Crosby.

“I have firsthand knowledge” of what happens in schools because he has four children in four different local public schools, Tomasic, who is running for the at-large school board seat, said.

The school board candidates were asked how they could engage the community to help eliminate the achievement gap between groups of students.

Tomasic said that there needs to be a better way for school communities, including parents, to talk to one another. “Right now, parents aren’t talking between schools” and are unable to share ideas that work and talk about what has not worked, he said.

Crosby pointed out a recent concerted effort by local schools to cut down on the number of out-of-school suspensions and online high school courses as ways to narrow the achievement gap. “All of these things together are using the community to eliminate the achievement gap,” she said.

Tomasic said in response to a question that “I sometimes cringe when I hear that statement” that St. Mary’s public schools are No. 1. “You can’t get the money because everybody thinks things are going so well,” he said. “That’s a double-edged sword.”

Crosby said that in 2010 the school system was No. 1 by one performance measure. She said that the middle schools may have some problems, but nothing overwhelming.

“We have to support our staff and retirees. These are the engine of our school system,” Crosby said.

Cathy Allen, incumbent for District 2, said the schools already use the faith-based community and local NAACP to help students achieve.

Allen’s opponent, Jim Davis, said that by late elementary or middle school too many students begin to drift academically.

“A lot of our students are losing hope” and are disengaged or dropping out of school, Davis said.

Responding to a question about the candidates’ views on teaching sex education in schools, Davis said, “I think it is very important. A lot of young ladies are getting in trouble at a young age.”

Rose agreed, adding, “It’s not only the girls, but boys can find themselves in trouble, too.”

Allen said her experience on both the local board for the last 12 years and through work at the state level is something her opponent does not have. Her analytical skills also come in handy on the board, she said.

“I know that I ask the questions that people in the community want answered,” she said.

Davis presented himself as a fresh alternative. He said he strongly supports online learning as a way to making school fun and keep students interested. “I compliment [Allen], she had three terms. I think it’s enough,” Davis said.

In response, Allen said, “Think of me as classic Coke,” adding that something new is not always better.

jyeatman@somdnews.com