By Victor Skinner
FREDERICK COUNTY, Md. – A group of concerned parents and taxpayers in Frederick County, Maryland are fed up with the direction of their school district, and they’re prepared to put their money where their mouth is.
For decades, school board members supported by the local teachers union – the Frederick County Teachers Association – have perpetuated problems in Frederick County schools by refusing to tackle tough budget issues, injecting politically charged curriculum into the classroom, and impeding school choice options for area students, according to the parents group.
So this spring parents and taxpayers formed A Better Choice Frederick, a political action committee they hope will change the dynamic of the district by helping to elect reform-minded candidates in this year’s school board elections."
“I think we’ve all come to the realization that the last 20 years have been dominated by union influence and we can sit back and watch things we’re not very happy with, or we can do something about it,” Kristen Eddins, the PAC’s acting president, told EAGnews.org. “Our goal is to get folks on the board of education who are budget conscious, who demand accountability, and who are also in favor of school choice options for our children.”
This fall, three seats on Frederick County’s seven-member school board are up for election, with six candidates running to fill the posts. Union endorsed board members currently outnumber their reform-conscious colleagues 4 to 3, and A Better Choice Frederick understands that significantly altering the course of the district will require them to reverse that ratio.
The FCTA “puts out what’s called an apple ballot,” which has traditionally been successful at “cloaking recommended candidates as the teachers’ choice,” although union critics believe “it’s probably not representative of the teachers in the county,” Eddins said.
A Better Choice Frederick, the first PAC formed to support candidates in a Maryland board of education race, aims to counter the union ballot recommendations with its own endorsements next month.
The taxpayers have had enough
Eddins first got involved with Frederick County schools in 2008, when she uncovered spending and other issues that have largely been ignored by school leaders. Her experience since leads her to believe that ABC will receive strong support from community members who want to move away from the unpopular decisions made by the board in recent years.
“Along the way, I met a lot of people with similar thoughts on where education should be heading in Fredrick County,” she said.
Topping the list of concerns is the delayed opening of Frederick Classical Charter School, which was slated to begin accepting K-8 students this school year. In Maryland, like many other states, school board members must approve the establishment of charter schools in their districts, and the process to open Frederick Classical has been met with “very strict guidelines not typical of what other charter schools are subject to, even in our county,” Eddins said.
In April, after the charter school’s supporters repeatedly worked to satisfy demands from board members regarding square footage and building lease terms, district officials decided to delay the school’s opening until at least 2013.
“Right before the (student lottery for enrollment) … the board president and the superintendent made the unilateral decision the lottery wasn’t going to move forward,” Eddins said. “It really felt like they just didn’t want it to open on time.”
Many Frederick County parents believe the charters shouldn’t need a school board’s approval, since they compete directly with public schools. Students who transfer from public schools to charters take their state funding with them, giving public school officials a vested interest in preventing charters from taking root in the community.
“Certainly our point of view is it is a conflict of interest,” Eddins said, adding that the charter debacle was a strong motivator for many parents who helped form ABCF.
“We’re a group of parents whose common thread is we were hoping to have a charter school open this year,” she said. “We … were very disappointed when the (Board of Education) put the kibosh on it,” Eddins said.
But the charter school issue is only the latest in a history of bad decisions that have plagued the district for decades, Eddins said.
“We’ve gone four to five years without raises for teachers in our county” and some schools lack adequate restroom facilities for students, she said. At the same time, board members approved spending $11 million on a new central office facility, despite available and utilized office space throughout the district.
“If it was really about the kids, I think things would be a lot different,” Eddins said. “They are not willing to cut the budget in ways that make sense. It’s basically a spending priority problem.”
More recently, parents have pushed to remove a left-leaning textbook “Social Studies Alive!” from third-grade classrooms in the district, due to concerns that the text unfairly promotes liberal views on government, public education and health care. A community task force studied the issue and sided with parents, recommending that the district replace the textbook immediately.
Instead, Frederick County school superintendent Theresa Alban decided the district will continue to use the tainted lessons until the 2014-15 school year. Parents appealed Alban’s decision to the school board, which decided to review the case behind closed doors, instead of in a public meeting.
The move is perfectly legal, because the meeting is allegedly centered on a personnel matter – the superintendent’s decision – but the situation illustrates both the union’s influence on the school curriculum and the board’s aversion to transparency and public accountability, Eddins said.
To counter the union influence and status-quo mentality of school officials, ABC plans to host a series of public education forums in coming months to discuss problems and solutions in Frederick County schools.
The group also invited school board candidates to fill out a questionnaire on the group’s website, ABetterChoiceFrederick.com, which is designed to flesh out their take on union influence in public schools and parents’ role in education.
The group plans to use the responses, as well as feedback gathered at the public meetings, to issue its endorsements for this year’s school board race Sept. 17.
The group expects to raise funds at the informational meetings to support ABC endorsed candidates, and is looking into other potential avenues for fundraising statewide.
“To this point, we haven’t raised much money, but we’re holding informational meetings in August and September around the county, and we’re hoping to raise money at those meetings,” she said.
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