With envy, Joy Schaefer listens to speakers who come before the school board, often fuming over a perceived wrong in the Frederick County Public Schools budget, or pleading with the board to please, please reconsider a cut.
Once, she, too, could freely lobby for her neighborhood of Spring Ridge, a sprawling suburb east of Frederick. She could make a fuss over redrawing school boundaries, because she was just one parent — an involved one, but not someone who needed to hide her personal feelings and govern for the entire school district.
Her place is on the Frederick County Board of Education dais, not at the lectern before it. Her decisions literally keep her up at night, but said those decisions are the best for Frederick County’s 40,000-plus public school students.
“What’s hard is when you agree with them,” Schaefer, 49, said in a recent interview, discussing parent advocacy. “It’s really easy to say, ‘Please don’t cut this.’ If I were them, that’s what I’d be saying. Unfortunately, the buck has got to stop somewhere and if we were not going to cut anything or not make some tough decisions, we would not be doing some other things that we really needed to do.”
With a grinning selfie on Twitter, Schaefer announced she would run for a second term that would put her on the school board through 2020. She proclaimed her excitement to join a robust pool of candidates.
She sent that tweet Feb. 3, the deadline for candidates to file in Maryland. Despite enjoying a distinct advantage as an incumbent, Schaefer said she seriously considered only a single term.
Her husband, a marketer and business developer for a company that produces tracking chips, earns the only income for their family of five — unless you count her $10,000 stipend for serving on the board, Schaefer joked.
Her eldest son enters college next year, and two more will soon follow.
She has devoted far more time to the board than initially expected. Previous board members told her to expect 20 hours a month, max.
“I didn’t know how far off the estimate that they were giving me [would be],” Schaefer said.
Certainly, she anticipated the intensive required reading, the inundation of documents. But she was unprepared to be drafted for a number of committees required of board members, and the emotional toll that comes with tough choices, and packs of community members squeezing into an often sweltering boardroom to complain and condemn the board for hours on end.
She appreciates those with the time and courage to speak up at the microphone. An email or a phone call sends a message, but reading your views into the record, on TV, publicly, carries a certain weight, she said.
Schaefer paused, considering how to frame the reason why she is taking on another arduous campaign. She rattled off a number of problems that persist in the school system, including large class sizes and subpar teacher salaries.
Amid a tight budget, Schaefer’s board voted to boost class size by one student, which didn’t add a single student to every class, but rather changed the formula for how teachers are distributed to schools. This resulted in unique classes at high schools being eliminated, something Schaefer is intent on fixing.
Also, the school system recently started shifting to a new salary scale for teachers, in part to remedy low teacher pay. This could cost $31 million over the next three years. The board will need to commit to dedicating funding to the new scale.
“I don’t know,” Schaefer said. “I just really — well, there are things that I wanted to see through.”
In 1969, Joy Schaefer’s mother immigrated to the United States from the Philippines with just $200.
She spoke English, held a professional degree and could provide for her 2-year-old daughter, even as a single mother. Joy’s father died around that time.
Still, as a first-generation immigrant, Schaefer’s mother remained unaware of certain cultural nuances, such as how to handle birthday parties or extracurricular activities in schools.
Schaefer became an interpreter of sorts for her mother — not of language, but of American society.
At Schaefer’s junior high school in Houston, where she largely grew up, teachers would inform her that at lunchtime on Tuesdays, she was to report to their rooms for drama and speech club.
Never had Schaefer tried theater, but she took to it so much, she later enrolled with the area performing and visual arts high school.
One teacher offered her her first job as a seamstress with the theater costuming department.
Another shepherded her into Model United Nations, which led her to apply to Georgetown University, where she graduated in 1989 with a bachelor’s degree in foreign service.
These teachers’ active interest buoyed her schooling experience, she said. In high school, she recalled one geometry teacher who hadn’t spoken with her in nearly two years halting Schaefer in the hallway and asking if the rumor was true, that she wouldn’t be completing her senior project in theater.
“He looked at me and said, ‘The thing about quitting is you don’t want it to become a habit,’” Schaefer said. “Then he turned around and walked away. I said that to my boys. Well, I don’t say that much now because we don’t quit, but I said that to them growing up.”
Perhaps it’s more of a philosophical goal, one that’s not quite concrete and can’t be measured, but Schaefer wants every student in the school district to have what her teachers gave her — a caring, careful adult.
Move to Frederick County
In her past professional life, Schaefer worked for a venerable long-standing nonprofit, the Foreign Policy Association. It formed nearly a century ago to support Woodrow Wilson’s vision of the League of Nations.
The association believed world affairs and policy discussion should not be confined to conversations among the elite, but rather translated to be absorbed by an average voter, Schaefer said.
She was liaison to a nationwide network of volunteers and worked often with schools.
Later, she stepped away to start her family with her husband.
Before coming to Frederick County, they lived in New York and were still deciding where to move after her husband secured his master’s degree. With one recommendation and a tour, they fell in love with Frederick County and moved here in the early 2000s.
A stay-at-home parent, Schaefer’s heavy involvement with PTA at her sons’ schools and the countywide PTA council prompted people she worked with to push her to run for the school board.
Schaefer sat on one committee that searched for an appropriate elementary school mathematics textbook. She was a member of what was then called “school improvement teams” in the days of the No Child Left Behind federal education law and schools being labeled failing.
Schaefer remained unconvinced. She took pleasure in the grunt work, the hustle, the volunteer days at carnivals. Her son’s schools, especially New Market Elementary, felt like a second home. She could stroll in with no makeup, hair messily captured in a bun, and in yoga pants and still be comfortable.
A friend told her she could advocate until she was hoarse, but only board members can vote on real change.
When she ran and won her seat in 2012, she found the environment particularly political, even with school board elections being nonpartisan. Politely, Schaefer, a Democrat, was turned away from a Republican booth at The Great Frederick Fair when she went to place her materials, she said.
This cycle, she’s running a “collaborative campaign” with fellow Democrats Mike Bunitsky and Ken Kerr. It carries all of the hallmarks of a slate, but they’re not registered that way with the state. They, along with Republican Cindy Rose, are competing for three open seats.
Schaefer, despite being the board’s legislative liaison and networking visibly with state contacts, maintains she has no interest in higher office. Once the next term wraps up, she’s done.
After an especially trying day, Schaefer will turn on “Columbo.” She said children have adopted her obsession with the TV detective show.
“I want to go back to my little life,” Schaefer said. “I think I can get things done that I want to in four years. There is only one real silver bullet to education. And that’s about people. It’s about people you put in place, and it’s about their ability to form relationships with the people they teach and work with.
“The only thing we can guarantee anyone anymore is that the world is going to change. I think that if we put enough caring, phenomenal people with all of our kids, that will equip them with what they need.”