Beginning this year, Baltimore County’s registered voters will have the opportunity to choose seven members of the county’s hybrid – or partially elected – school board.
The 12-member board will soon be comprised of four appointed members, one student member, and seven elected members who represent the county’s seven councilmanic districts.
Two candidates are running for District Five, an area that encompasses Towson, Perry Hall, Fullerton, Carney and Kingsville.
Current at-large school board member, Julie Henn, and her opponent, Dr. Peter Bielenson, will face off in November’s general election.
Ms. Henn is one of two original board members running to maintain her seat on Baltimore County’s school board. Incumbent member, Kathleen Causey, is also running to keep her position. Ms. Causey currently represents District Three.
The seven-elected and four-appointed board members will be seated in December, while the board’s student member will start her one-year term on July 1.
Appointed as an at-large member by Gov. Larry Hogan in December 2016, Ms. Henn, who lives in Perry Hall, is now running to represent District Five.
Henn has worked as a technology professional for over 20 years and has served in a number of educational advisory and leadership positions, including serving on the Northeast Area Education Advisory Council.
Q&A with Julie Henn:
BP: Why are you running for the school board?
JH: As a BCPS parent since 2006, I grew increasingly frustrated by the school system’s lack of responsiveness to parent concerns – particularly on school overcrowding and discipline. I wanted to give parents a voice in BCPS decision making and decided to get involved. I joined the Northeast Area Education Advisory Council, the Superintendent’s Parent Advisory Council, and the Superintendent’s Community Advisory Council. I also formed a PTA Community Awareness Committee at my daughter’s school. Even as a member of these groups, concerns still fell on deaf ears. I advocated for an elected school board so that the board would be held accountable to the citizens it represents. In 2016, based on my community and advocacy leadership, I was asked to apply for appointment to the Board. With bipartisan support for my appointment, I was selected and joined the Board in 2016. In my time on the Board, I have seen firsthand the work that must be done to address parent, teacher, and student concerns. Neither the Board, nor the superintendent, are held accountable to the stakeholders we serve. There is a tremendous need for greater transparency and inclusiveness in Board and BCPS decision making and public input must be taken seriously – and addressed. We need to change BCPS culture from one of fear and avoidance – to one that acknowledges areas for improvement and values input – both positive and negative and that is committed to real, meaningful collaboration, with measurable results. This is what I am working to accomplish on the Board and why I am running to continue to serve the parents, teachers, and students of Baltimore County.
BP: What do you see is Baltimore County Public Schools’ greatest strength? And what has the district done well over last five years?
JH: Baltimore County Public Schools’ greatest strength is its teachers. We have some truly remarkable, dedicated, hardworking, caring educators in BCPS who want the best for our children. Our teachers are the most resilient, resourceful, brilliant, energetic, and talented individuals out there. The kindness and generosity they show our students is unparalleled. BCPS teachers find a way to adapt to constant change and endless demands and do so graciously. They routinely make personal sacrifices to meet the needs of all students and often have to manage and endure extremely challenging classroom situations without adequate support. Their dedication, perseverance, and love of teaching make BCPS a strong system.
Over the last five years, the district has done an exceptional job planning and executing approved school construction projects – on time, and on budget. School administrators report that they have been very pleased with the district’s and contractors’ support on the projects and the outcomes. The number of concurrent projects has increased significantly and BCPS has risen to the challenge and has delivered.
BP: What do you see is the school system’s greatest weakness? And what has the district done poorly that you want changed?
JH: The system’s greatest weakness is its culture and the ‘us vs them’ mindset that closes the door to open dialogue about improvements. Constructive criticism is not only unwelcome but is silenced. Teachers, fearful of retaliation, are scared to speak out. Those that do speak out – on the slightest of issues – are reprimanded. Concerns cannot be addressed when we don’t acknowledge that problems exist. The system’s decision-making process is neither transparent nor inclusive – even of Board members who do not receive basic information requested. Any questions are ignored or deflected – often handled as Public Information Act requests. The defensive posturing and reluctance to share information only decrease the public’s trust in the system. The system’s determination to push an agenda, despite stakeholder feedback that suggests an alternate path, deepens the divide and prevents healthy collaboration that could truly lead to a world-class system. Dialogue is suppressed; the narrative is controlled to allow only that which supports the agenda to be disclosed. We need greater transparency throughout BCPS – with real performance measures and real stakeholder feedback – that are captured, published, and on which progress is reported. We need to revisit the system’s strategic plan. This must be a collaborative process with stakeholders based on research and data and input on what our students need.
BP: What do you see are the current challenges facing Baltimore County Public Schools, as a whole?
JH: Staffing – Schools need increased staffing to support the growing population of students who cannot otherwise succeed in regular classrooms, for whatever reason. The demands on teachers are far too great and without additional support, all students suffer.
Discipline – Pressures to reduce the number of disciplinary actions and to keep students in school have resulted in inconsistent consequences. Disruptive students are allowed to remain in classrooms and to continue to disrupt learning. Victims of bullying often suffer repeat abuse due to offenders returned to the classroom. Teachers and administrators report they feel their hands are tied when it comes to discipline.
Prioritization of Spending – All areas of BCPS operations have had budget cuts in order to pay for the 1:1 device program and digital curriculum initiatives. School based budgets and staffing have been cut; while central office staff spending has increased. Plant maintenance and transportation budgets have been reduced. Basic needs are not being appropriately met, yet non-essentials are funded.
BP: What do you see are the district’s greatest capital needs right now?
JH: The need to replace aging schools and to add capacity is the greatest need currently – specifically for high schools. At least three high schools need to be replaced (Towson, Dulaney, and Lansdowne) and at least one new high school must be built (Northeast).
BP: In your view, is there an achievement gap? If so, why? How can it be solved?
JH: No answer.
BP: Do you feel that schools are treated equally in the school system? Why/why not? (i.e. facilities, resources, support)
JH: Answered via earlier question.
BP: What do you see is the role of the Board of Education? Also, how do you see this role relative to any superintendent hired by the school system?
JH: The Board of Education is required by state law to “determine the policies of the county school system.” Policies guide and direct the superintendent and staff based on the vision, goals, principles, and positions of the Board of Education. The Board also provides fiscal oversight of the school system, ensuring that taxpayer dollars are spent wisely toward the system mission of providing a quality education for all students.
BP: If approached by a special interest group, former board member or politician with a request on how to vote on a matter, how would you handle such a request? What would you do?
JH: Since serving on the Board, I have been approached by individuals with vote requests. I handle all requests by first listening to understand, then requesting any available data on the issue (supporting both sides). I consider any information shared, along with my own research on the topic, to make an informed decision – consulting with as many stakeholders and subject matter experts as possible.
BP: As a Board member, would (or do) you see yourself primarily as a representative of the community or as a representative for the school system?
JH: As a Board member, my role is to provide oversight of the school system on behalf of the community I serve. I joined the Board to give the community a voice in system decision making and intend to continue to represent the community, if elected.
BP: Will you be accessible to community members and their concerns? What are the ways you plan to engage with community members? (And/or how have you engaged with the community?)
JH: I will remain accessible and responsive to all community members. I actively share information and respond to community concerns through my Board Facebook page. I respond to community members daily, through Facebook, email, and calls to my personal cell phone. I am active on a number of Facebook sites for Baltimore County Public Schools and follow posts, contributing as much as possible. I attend as many community and school meetings as I am able and plan to increase this attendance. This past school year, I held two dozen or more breakfast drop-ins for teachers to come and discuss concerns. I volunteer in my community outside of the Board as a Girl Scout Leader and on projects such as the construction of Angel Park. This type of outreach is essential to my success as a Board member and I plan to continue to find new ways to connect with my community next year and beyond.
BP: In your view, does BCPS have a student discipline problem? If so, why? And how should/can it be addressed?
JH: Nationwide, schools have major student discipline problems. Federal government pressure to reduce the disproportionality of school disciplinary actions for certain populations has resulted in inconsistent administration of consequences and inadequate supports for teachers who are left powerless to manage discipline problems in their classrooms. We must serve those students who need extra supports in an environment suited to their needs. We need to increase the use and availability of alternate placements to assist students who cannot succeed in regular classrooms. And we must expand programs for families to support students at home so that they are prepared to learn at school.
BP: What is your own experience with public education?
JH: I attended Baltimore County Public Schools – both Harford Hills Elementary and Perry Hall Middle. I have two children; my son attended Seven Oaks Elementary and Perry Hall Middle; my daughter attended Chapel Hill Elementary and currently attends Perry Hall Middle. I have volunteered in both of their schools since 2006.
BP: What is your opinion on the school system’s youngest learners being on 1:1 computers? Specifically, what do you think the gains and/or missed opportunities are (such as time and money)?
JH: Answered via earlier question.
BP: What are the factors on which you will base your decisions as a school board member?
JH: I will continue to base my decisions as a school board member on what is in the best interests of students, based on research, data, and stakeholder input. I will continue to look at the opportunity cost of our spending decisions, considering the needs of all schools and all students.
BP: How do you suggest the school system adhere to both ethics and procurement procedures and policies? In your view, whose job is it to oversee procurement and ethics policies and procedures?
JH: It is the Board’s responsibility to develop policies that effectively govern. We must direct the superintendent and staff on acceptable ethics and procurement practices and it is our job to ensure that these practices are followed. We must hold ourselves accountable to develop appropriate policies and we must hold the superintendent and staff accountable to develop rules that effectively implement these policies. And we must direct regular reviews, through independent audits, to confirm that staff are adhering to these rules.