BOWIE – Four candidates are vying for the final two spots to compete for a single board of education seat for District 5, but representing Prince George’s County students on the board will take a lot more than knowing basic numbers.
That was more than apparent at the District 5 candidate forum on March 23, hosted by the Prince George’s County NAACP, as candidates took tough topics head on.
Although all four candidates are hoping to sit at the Prince George’s County Board of Education dais come November, only three attended the forum. Board member Verjeana Jacobs, Robert Johnson and Raaheela Ahmed participated in the nearly two hour-long forum that focused on the candidates’ experience and their plans if elected to the board. Cheryl Landis, who is also vying for the seat, was not at the forum.
The forum, moderated by Ron Watson, a former board member, allowed each candidate two minutes to answer each of the questions, which were formulated by both the NAACP and by the present residents. Though Bowie did not pack the Kenhill Center Auditorium, the residents who came out were prepared with questions ranging from what candidates will do to ensure Bowie High School is on the same level as Eleanor Roosevelt to how candidates plan to advocate for minority and special education students.
Though not a debate, the forum pitted Jacobs’ experience against the promises and aspirations of the two other candidates.
“I talk about how hard this work is. This is very difficult work,” Jacobs said. “Because we have the most precious entity to deal with and to make decisions about them.”
Jacobs is the current District 5 board member and has sat on the board since December of 2006. She held a role in board leadership from 2006 until 2013. Jacobs is an attorney and served in the Prince George’s County Department of Corrections from 1989 until 2012 and was also the first woman president of the Prince George’s Correctional Officers Association from 1996 to 2003.
Johnson is a former employee of Prince George’s County Public Schools who taught at Northwestern High School for five years and also served in roles of principal and assistant principal. Johnson holds a Masters of Education degree in special education from Bowie State University and currently is a campus director at ITT Technical College in Springfield, Va.
Ahmed is a former county schools student who attended high school at Eleanor Roosevelt. She holds two degrees from the University of Maryland and is currently an advisory associate for the global public sector at Grant Thornton LLP where she provides management services to the Department of Homeland Security’s Federal Protective Service. Ahmed was the 2014-2015 student regent on the Board of Regents for the Maryland university system and previously ran for the board of education in 2012.
For the most part, Johnson and Ahmed focused on what they would do for the students and families if elected to the board to represent District 5. Jacobs, in contrast, talked about what she has already done and focused on educating parents and families on how best to advocate for their children. But no matter the question, experience continued to make itself known as all three candidates used their careers and life journeys to frame them as the best choice.
Ahmed, a life-long Prince Georgian, said it is time for a “fresh perspective” on the board.
“It can always be better. The minute you say something is great and there’s no need for improvement, that’s the minute that maybe you should not be in that position,” she said.
Ahmed, who touts her advocacy for university students while serving on the board of regents, said she wants to grow partnerships while on the board and provide further opportunities for students through vocational schools, expanding advanced placement offerings, and by being a community advocate.
Johnson wishes to expand partnerships with universities around the county, wants to advocate for safer schools by taking another look at suspension policies, and said he wants to provide equal opportunities to all students through equal funding for all schools, not funding based on specialty programs. He also said there is a definite need for improved communication and wants to hold quarterly meetings in the districts where board members brief the public on what the board of education is doing and what their votes mean.
Johnson believes it is time for residents to have better access to their representatives.
“It’s okay, but there is definitely room for improvement,” Johnson said. “I think forums like this need to occur more often. I think we need to make certain that if we represent the board and the city of Bowie that we bring some of our meetings of the board of education to city hall where residents have better access to their representatives.”
The candidates discussed Common Core standards, where they each agreed that the standards are difficult, but get students thinking in a different way. Jacobs reiterated that Common Core is not a program, but a national set of standards and said they are to help students be able to compete on a global level.
Johnson said while he understands the need for Common Core, he wishes schools could “opt out” because not every student learns the same way.
Candidates also discussed the power of the county executive and all agreed that Rushern Baker III had too much power over the county board of education after the passing of HB 1107 in 2013.
Johnson said he believes county schools should be a shared responsibility between the community and the government, but said school systems should reflect what the people want. Ahmed agreed and said she felt the state government “overstepped their bounds” in giving the county executive power to appoint members to the board, the chief executive officer and both the chair and vice-chair – which the passing of HB 1107 did. She said it is not the role of the county to fully govern the school system.
Jacobs reiterated the same points and said the people’s choice must always be honored.
“I live it every day and what I will say to you is this, the people’s choice and the people’s right must always be honored. At the end of the day, when we are talking about power – not on the backs of our children. Period. Children should always come above politics,” Jacobs said.
Primary voting is on April 26 and two candidates can move on to the general election.