By Donna St. George
May 31, 2020
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Schools across the country may be shut down, but school board politics has rarely been as heated in suburban Maryland.
Elected officials in Montgomery declared their opposition to one candidate in particular in the nonpartisan contest: a Bethesda father of two whom many activists have accused of stirring fear and division in a county that prides itself on equity and inclusion.
“There are 13 choices in the race for at-large school board, and they represent a range of perspectives. Though our group has not coalesced around a single candidate for this seat, we are united in expressing concern about one particular candidate: Stephen Austin,” read a letter signed by 19 state and county leaders in recent days.
Austin emerged late last year as a leading critic of a school boundary analysis in Montgomery County, questioning its goals and the policy changes that preceded it, and arguing that it could lead to longer bus rides for students. The analysis looks at how boundaries affect the socioeconomic diversity of schools, along with school crowding and other issues.
Austin founded a Facebook page called Montgomery County MD Neighbors for Local Schools, which has more than 8,200 members. Several months ago, Austin jumped into the political fray, seeking a school board seat in the wide-open at-large race.
The eight-member school board, which includes one student member, sets policy and oversees a $2.6 billion budget in the 166,000-student system.
Some of the tension that flared during boundary debates extended into the usually low-key school board campaign.
In recent weeks, opinion pieces and social media exchanges have focused on Austin’s candidacy.
Maryland State Sen. Cheryl C. Kagan (D-Montgomery), who co-wrote the letter signed by 19 elected officials, said she has objected to what she called Austin’s “coded and divisive language” and what she saw as personal attacks against those who disagree with him.
“Many of us felt we needed someone who reflected our values,” said Kagan, who wrote the letter with state Del. David Moon (D-Montgomery) and included similar warnings about his candidacy in other letters to her constituents.
Austin said in an interview that the officials who came out against him had not done “due diligence” on his bid for election and what he stands for. He disputed their allegations.
For all candidates, the coronavirus pandemic has changed many aspects of campaigning. Schools in Maryland have been shuttered since March, and distance-learning efforts are underway.
With widespread restrictions, campaigning has been largely remote — no handshaking or door-knocking — so candidates are pushing out messages through social media posts, texts, emails and classic postcards. Candidate forums have been virtual.
The top two vote-getters in the race will move on to the general election in November. Here is the lineup of candidates for the at-large seat:
Mitra Ahadpour, a 55-year-old who lives in Potomac, is a physician and principal deputy director of translational sciences at the Food and Drug Administration. The parent of a ninth-grader and two graduates of the school system, she says she is a results-oriented executive who listens deeply and will bring fresh ideas.
Her top issues include ending drug use in county schools and supporting evidence-based strategies “to foster inclusion, diversity, equity and civility that will close the opportunity gap.”
She holds a bachelor’s degree from the University of Maryland at College Park and a medical degree from the University of Maryland School of Medicine.
Stephen Austin, a 46-year-old who lives in Carderock Springs, works as a pension fund portfolio manager and says he would draw on his 18 years of financial experience. He is focused on the budget and “holding the board accountable to a community-engaged, evidence-based process for all policy changes.”
Austin is a father of two who founded the Facebook page Montgomery County MD Neighbors for Local Schools amid the boundary debate. He earned a bachelor’s degree at the University of Texas at Austin.
Anil Chaudhry, a 41-year-old Potomac father of three, is a mid-level federal executive with priorities that include promoting equity and creating a culture of accountability. As schools are closed, he said, he would like to democratize access to the curriculum with a technology platform that serves multiple audiences.
Chaudhry served as an officer in the Army for 10 years, including a combat tour in Iraq. He holds a bachelor’s degree from the City College of New York and two master’s degrees, one from the Florida Institute of Technology and another from the National War College. His law degree is from Western New England University.
Sunil Dasgupta, 51, is a political science professor at the University of Maryland at Baltimore County who lives in Aspen Hill and has served as a community leader in the countywide Parent-Teacher Association. His platform includes improving learning outcomes for all students and adjusting resources to address equity and student mental health issues.
Amid the pandemic, remote learning could be improved with “massive teacher retraining” and by rethinking content, he said. He also suggested a committee of outside experts and county leaders to analyze how things worked — and how to do better. Dasgupta, a father of three, earned his doctorate at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.
Jay Guan, a 34-year-old aerospace engineer from Clarksburg, is a former board president of the Chinese American Parent Association of Montgomery County. His priorities include innovative education methods and the safe, effective operation of schools in response to the pandemic.
Guan, who has a rising kindergartner, describes himself as proactive, prudent and collaborative, and said as an immigrant from a low-income family he understands the opportunity gaps faced by many students. He holds a master’s degree from Johns Hopkins University and a bachelor’s degree from the University of California at San Diego.
Paul Geller is a longtime community advocate and writer who lives in Olney and declined to give his age. He has been active in the countywide council of PTAs and served as its president for a year. In 2018, he made an unsuccessful bid for a seat on the Montgomery County Council. A father of two, he holds a bachelor’s degree from the University of Wisconsin.
His top issues are college and career readiness and school construction and renovations. He would like to see, as much as possible, regular class schedules used during online learning.
Lynne Harris, a 57-year-old who lives in Silver Spring, is a teacher at Thomas Edison High School of Technology and former president of the countywide council of PTAs. Amid the pandemic, she volunteers at a coronavirus testing site twice a week.
Harris pointed to her deep knowledge of the school system and its challenges, having put in thousands of hours of education advocacy over more than a decade. She would like to see more “substantive engagement of student and community wisdom in all decision-making” and an open data system. She earned a bachelor’s degree in nursing at the University of Tulsa, a law degree at Washington University in St. Louis and a master’s in public health at Johns Hopkins University. She has a son in a county high school.
Collins Odongo, a 45-year-old professor at Washington Adventist University in Takoma Park, said he would bring 15 years of experience in education, management and public policy to the position, including experience teaching online. Odongo, who lives in Burtonsville, has bachelor’s and master’s degrees from the University of Bridgeport in Connecticut and a doctorate from Walden University. He is the father of three children and involved in the countywide PTA.
Dalbin Osorio, a 35-year-old social worker and former educator who lives in Gaithersburg, says his priorities are easing school crowding and closing gaps in opportunity between students of color and their white peers. He manages a program for children with intensive needs at the Montgomery County Collaboration Council, which helps in forging public-private partnerships.
Osorio, who has a young daughter, has a master’s degree from Hunter College in New York and earned his bachelor’s from Monroe College in New York. He is studying for an online master’s in education policy and leadership at Boston College.
Cameron Rhode, a 25-year-old who lives in Gaithersburg and works as a tutor, said he stands out as a recent graduate of the school system who has listened to students, parents and teachers in more than a decade of political volunteering.
His top issues are physical and mental health and improving responsiveness to the concerns of LGBT students and teachers. He holds a master’s degree and a bachelor’s degree from the University of Maryland at Baltimore County.
Darwin Romero, a 42-year-old senior loan officer who lives in Silver Spring, says his priorities are greater diversity among teachers and administrators and strategic partnerships with the community to help students gain real-world experience. As the pandemic goes on, he said the summer is important for filling in gaps in teacher training and student learning.
Romero tutored students at the Saturday School for five years and served with the school system’s Latino Student Achievement Action Group. While earning his bachelor’s degree at the University of Maryland, he worked as a school bus operator in Montgomery. He is a single father of two and previously ran for the Montgomery County Council.
Pavel Sukhobok, a 31-year-old who lives in Rockville, co-founded a local tutoring center, where he has worked with hundreds of students, and said he wants to strengthen the curriculum by improving the grading system and bringing back final exams. Amid the pandemic, students need online or in-person classes on a regular basis with grading that encourages attendance and hard work, he said.
In 2011, Sukhobok founded a nonprofit called Makuyu Education Initiative to help children escape poverty in Kenya. The father of a young daughter, he earned a bachelor’s degree from the University of Maryland and a law degree, with an MBA, from George Washington University.
Lumpoange Thomas, a 51-year-old who works as a regulatory counsel for the Food and Drug Administration, has been a parent volunteer for 11 years, serving in classrooms, with the PTA and as an all-school high school booster club president. Her top issues are ensuring preparedness for distance learning for all student populations and reconciling the budget deficits the school system will face.
Thomas, who lives in North Bethesda and has a son who is a graduating senior, earned a bachelor’s degree at Florida State University and a law degree at the University of Detroit.