Two Calvert County school board candidates may have enjoyed a forum moderated by Malcolm Funn last week, but the school superintendent may not have.

District 1 incumbent Dawn Balinski and challenger Chad Leo participated in a virtual forum sponsored by the Calvert League of Women Voters on Oct. 6.

Leo, a recent graduate of Patuxent High School, is taking on Balinski, who has served eight years on the board of education. She was elected in 2010 and then lost to Bill Phalen in 2014, before being re-elected in 2016.

“I’ve gone through the fire,” Balinski said, calling the loss to the popular Phalen, who died Sept. 7, “one of the hardest experiences you can go through.”

Balinski noted that she had two children go through Calvert schools, while Leo said he has two siblings who are currently attending and his parents are both educators: his mother in Calvert and his father in St. Mary’s County.

Balinski said the board can only do three things: hire/fire the superintendent, set policy and set the budget.

“It’s an eye-opener when you first get on the board because you think you must have more say than one does,” she said.

Superintendent targeted

Leo targeted Superintendent Daniel D. Curry in some of his remarks, noting that he would hold him accountable. “I don’t think the board has done that to the best of their ability,” Leo said. He criticized Balinski for twice approving Curry’s contract, which he said currently pays $205,000 a year and is $20,000 more than the salary for St. Mary’s public schools’ Superintendent Scott Smith. However, according to contracts posted on the school systems’ websites, Smith actually makes $20,000 more than Curry.

“He’s responsible for implementing the policies of the board of education,” Leo said of Curry. “I don’t think Dr. Curry has done an adequate job of doing that.”

Balinski said that Calvert “is one of the thinnest staffed” school districts as far as administrators go. In addition, “Dr. Curry has one of the leanest benefit packages,” she said.

Leo said the school board “had a great opportunity to promote a leader from within,” naming former interim superintendent Nancy Highsmith. Instead, a few members of the board, including Balinski, decided to recruit someone from Delaware instead of promoting a former teacher from the county, Leo said.

In response, Balinski said Highsmith “was an excellent interim superintendent.” However, Balinski noted that Highsmith “had not met all of the qualifications. She didn’t meet of all of the state requirements.”

“Curry has improved communication with the stakeholders, a lot more than existed in the past,” Balinski said.

Leo pledged to conduct two town halls each year, if elected, and said the school district has declined in rankings over the past couple of years.

Balinski said the starting teacher salary was just raised to $50,500 and noted that “steps” in the salary schedule that hadn’t been implemented during the recession a decade ago have been restored.

“It’s not just pay, it’s about how you feel,” Leo said. “Recent comments by board members and Dr. Curry have caused teachers to feel unappreciated, and that’s why they’re leaving.” Leo said teachers are distraught by lack of resources and respect.

Other issues addressed

As far as security goes, Balinski said the district is “almost finished all hardening of our schools,” citing vestibules with restricted entry and adding cameras and school resource officers.

Leo said the district needs a “two-pronged strategy” for protecting students and staff. This includes using restorative justice and adding mental health resources, which he said research shows reduces school violence by more than 40%. Leo said that Calvert Technology Academy hasn’t had a school resource officer for many years.

“I’m proud of our school system,” Balinski said, noting it has hired a supervisor of equity and student improvement [Sandy Walker] to teach how to recognize one’s implicit bias. “We’re having a courageous conversation throughout the school system,” Balinski said. This was in response to a question about how to develop procedures to implement the district’s anti-racism policy.

“We need to do more than just a book club,” Leo said. “We need outreach to LGBTQ, racial minorities and impoverished students to overcome barriers.”

In regard to special education program improvements, Leo noted that he had an individualized education program, or IEP, throughout his school years. “We’ve been underfunding, understaffing and under-resourcing,” he said. “Students don’t have a voice [in their education]. They should.”

Balinski said the district budgeted for “eight or nine” school psychologists, but was only able to hire four. As a result, the district was forced to contract for services, including bringing in social workers.

“I would not flip-flop my vote in the middle of a meeting,” Leo said, adding that he wouldn’t vote for a plan unless he had more than an hour to review it, referring to Balinski voting for a hybrid plan on Sept. 24 to bring some students back to school buildings on Oct. 26. That vote resulted in a tie, 2-2-1.

Leo noted that he was endorsed by new school board member Patrick Nutter and others.

Balinski said she’s helped the district through several challenges, citing the Great Recession that began in 2008, the aftermath of the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting in Newtown, Conn., in 2012 and, currently, the COVID-19 pandemic.

The League of Women Voters did not host a forum for the District 2 school board race between Antoine White and Dawn Keen after Keen suspended her campaign in late July amidst a social media controversy. White and Keen are vying to replace Tracy H. McGuire, who is term-limited.

Incumbent Inez N. Claggett is unopposed in District 3 after being appointed to her current position when former board member Kelly D. McConkey was elected as a county commissioner. Nutter was recently appointed to fill the at-large seat vacated when Bill Phalen died. Pamela L. Cousins holds the other at-large seat.

Two St. Mary’s candidates bow out of forum

A virtual Oct. 13 forum that had been scheduled for St. Mary’s school board candidates Jim Davis and Heather Earhart was canceled the morning of the event. District 2 incumbent Davis said he canceled because of an “urgent family matter.”

Earhart said it was unfortunate that the forum was canceled, but wished Davis’ family the best. Earhart announced in January that she was running for the position. On Tuesday, she said getting to the national standard of 15 students for one teacher is a worthwhile goal for St. Mary’s.

Cathy Allen faces a challenge this year from DeForest Rathbone, whom she had previously defeated in a 2016 primary election for the St. Mary’s school board’s at-large seat.

A League of Women Voters candidate forum was not scheduled for the Allen-Rathbone race because Rathbone previously declined to participate in the virtual forum. A former nurse, Allen said she respected the LWV’s decision to socially distance in light of COVID-19.

District 4 incumbent Mary Washington is running unopposed in the Nov. 3 general election.

Twitter: @CalebSoMdNews

Twitter: @CalebSoMdNews