Frederick County school board candidates were asked on Thursday to explain their positions on charter schools, joining a national conversation fueled locally as the county’s charter schools seek expansion and more funding.
Thursday’s forum was sponsored by Monocacy Montessori Communities Inc., or MMCI, the nonprofit that manages two county charter schools. It was one of the final opportunities for all four Frederick County Board of Education candidates to speak on the same stage before the Nov. 8 election.
Three seats are open on the school board. The candidates are incumbent Joy Schaefer, retired Frederick County Public Schools administrator Mike Bunitsky, Frederick Community College professor Ken Kerr, and parent and vocal school system critic Cindy Rose.
Charter schools are public schools where parents elect to send their children.
Charter schools are typically more innovative and nontraditional than a typical public school. They must meet the educational services outlined in their contract, or charter. In Maryland, local school boards approve charter schools.
Candidates on Thursday addressed more than just how they would support charter schools and open communication between the county’s three charter schools and the district leadership, although several questions centered on those or related topics.
Two of the county’s schools are Montessori-focused and run by MMCI, Carroll Creek Montessori Public Charter School and Monocacy Valley Montessori Public Charter School, where the forum was held. The third is Frederick Classical Charter School.
Responding to the question of whether charter schools benefit Frederick County, the candidates all answered yes, though with varying degrees of enthusiasm.
Rose emphasized that she was a major charter advocate. She expressed confusion why students at charters were not provided the full per-pupil amount, and pledged to reverse this.
Throughout the night, Rose injected into her answers her vision of education controlled locally, free of virtually any outside government or corporate influence.
Charter schools do not receive the same level of funding because they get in-kind services from the district.
Bunitsky, meanwhile, said he supported the existence of charter schools, but added that he was not their biggest cheerleader. He said he would have liked to have seen Montessori education woven into elementary schools throughout the county.
Bunitsky said startup costs for charter schools have historically been a major roadblock to their existence, particularly during the Great Recession.
Kerr and Schaefer gave similar answers — that charter schools, when they meet the letter of their contract and were done correctly, are another great offering of the county’s public school system.
All of the candidates said they supported improving communication between the school system and the charter schools through different methods.
A director at the central office who would speak with and handle charter school matters would be beneficial, Bunitsky said. He also suggested having a committee to be a liaison for the charter schools.
Rose didn’t specify a new way to talk to the charter schools, but said she supported the concept.
Drawing on his experience at FCC, Kerr referred to regular meetings the school district schedules with the college, and said that model could be replicated. The relationship between charter schools and the district could be “the envy of the state,” much like the connection between the district and FCC, he said.
When the moderator asked candidates to define their priorities, their differences were more stark.
Regarding the controversial Common Core Standards and the associated testing regimen, Rose said that the local board could reject the state and federal directives. Kerr called the testing burdensome and intrusive, but said the best avenue was to advocate changes in legislation, which he would be willing to do.
Both Bunitsky and Schaefer spoke of their desire to reduce class sizes.
They, along with Kerr, have formed a “collaborative campaign.” The three are not a slate, but share funding and campaign literature.
Reducing class size will help teachers work with individual students and ensure each gets the proper attention, like the socially awkward child or the student who hasn’t mastered English, Bunitsky said.
In addition to the class size issue, Schaefer spoke of wanting to fully fund a new teacher salary scale that would lift the starting and middle-year teacher salaries.
School board members are nonpartisan positions and earn $10,000 a year. The school board president earns $11,000 annually.
For more information about the candidates, listen to The Frederick News-Post’s podcast interviews with them at www.fnppodcasts.com/politics.