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Ocean Pines district school board candidates discuss issues

The three Worcester Board of Education candidates running in District 5  provided insight into their platforms at a public forum at the Ocean Pines Library on April 30.

BOE forum

Worcester Board of Education candidate Dorothy Shelton-Leslie speaks to the crowd at an election forum on April 30, at the Ocean Pines Library. She is running for the District 5 seat against incumbent Elena McComas and candidate John Huber, who are pictured seated and also spoke at the forum.
Tara Fischer / Bayside Gazette

By Tara Fischer, Staff Writer 

The three District 5 candidates vying for a spot on the Worcester County Board of Education provided insight into their platforms at a public forum at the Ocean Pines Library on April 30. The Worcester County Republican Central Committee hosted the event. 

Incumbent Elena McComas faces Dorothy Shelton-Leslie, a 40-plus-year educator, and John Huber, who has 30 years of experience as a teacher and administrator.  

In her opening remarks, McComas said that besides her seven years on the board, her bio includes a diploma from Wicomico High School, a bachelor’s degree in science education from the University of Maryland, College Park, and a master’s in molecular biology from Johns Hopkins. 

The educator, who worked in Montgomery County and California before coming to Worcester, spent 25 years as a biology teacher across all levels, particularly high school. She hopes to continue her efforts on the board of education to ensure parents are involved in their children’s instruction, “maintain the outstanding school system,” keep small class sizes, raise teacher salaries, and “do what is best for our kids.” 

Huber has 15 years of classroom experience in Maryland’s k-12 schools and 15 years as an administrator. “It is a lack of discernment regarding school safety, the lack of knowledge of policies, and the lack of direction that prioritizes student achievement and sound strategic planning that propel me to run,” he said. “We need educators on the board. Not politicians.” 

Shelton-Leslie has two master’s degrees, one in administration and the other in reading. She has taught grades k-6 and is a former adjunct professor at the University of Delaware. The candidate believes her experience in staff development and ability to empathize with teachers and principals will prepare her to serve Worcester County Public Schools effectively. 

The contenders were first asked about the potential of a second year receiving the Maintenance of Effort funding formula from the Worcester County Commissioners and their recommendations to alleviate budget concerns. 

MOE is the minimum amount of county funding to schools allowed by state law. Based on a property tax formula that places Worcester as the wealthiest county in Maryland, most of the system’s financial support comes from the local government, which intends to provide less money than the board believes is necessary to deliver educational excellence. 

Huber emphasized the disconnect between the commissioners and the board, ensuring everyone wants a fully funded budget. However, the candidate argued that there needs to be a stronger sense of prioritization. Small class sizes, he said, while excellent, come with an expensive price tag. 

Shelton-Leslie expressed similar sentiments. “There is a long discussion about what kind of money we need versus what kind is available,” she said. “…we only have ‘X’ amount of dollars that we need to prioritize. We have been talking about raises for teachers, and we need this too, so the more economical we can be, the more likely we are to get money for teacher raises. I would like to see that discussion on both sides.”

Shelton-Leslie also advocated for the zero-based budget. This is a financial plan-building process that begins at zero dollars. Each department starts with nothing, and money is added based on necessity. 

McComas defended small class sizes as a priority and the reason the county has seen educational success. She also maintained that the board has complied with the commissioners’ requests, such as a detailed 126-page budget and 300-plus pages of daily expenditures posted every month for transparency. 

“We are trying very hard to find the money via grants,” the incumbent said. “If we go to MOE this year, we will have to cut 90 positions, which makes me ill. That will change our school’s culture. I would ask that we look at different ways to reach the middle on this one.” 

The candidates were also asked about the impact of the Blueprint for Maryland’s Future, a costly educational plan, on Worcester’s future budgets. 

Shelton-Leslie explained that the Blueprint prioritizes human and material student resources for academic success. “We are going to get some [monetary] help with that, but some on the board say that is not enough,” she said. “It’s never enough.”

Huber said that while he was initially not an advocate for the Blueprint, it is here to stay and must be worked with. Because the educational plan is expensive and Worcester’s funding may be limited, he recommends the school system champion the fact that it is one of the best-performing counties in the state to encourage additional support. 

McComas also recognized the strain the Blueprint is expected to put on the system. She notes that 94% of the budget goes toward salaries and maintenance and only 6% toward supplies and materials. 

“We are looking at a situation where we either go with smaller class sizes or combine Pocomoke High School and Snow Hill High School and try to give those students the same opportunities we can give the students at Stephen Decatur High School,” the school board member said. “This is a horrific idea. This will destroy communities. Pocomoke deserves its high school. Snow Hill deserves its high school. But that costs money. We are not sure where it goes from here.” 

The forum touched on staff payment, particularly teachers, as Worcester County has the lowest starting salary in the state. All three candidates expressed their desire to provide for educators. Huber acknowledged that even an increase to $60,000 is not enough, but he supports all methods possible to improve compensation. 

Shelton-Leslie suggested that increasing class sizes will save money and can thus raise teacher salaries. 

“I have done a lot of research on small classes, and a lot says that in terms of solutions for instruction and discipline… small class sizes are costly, and it is not one of the first choices most school improvement personnel would make,” she said. 

McComas reiterated that she hopes to raise funds for initiatives like increased staff salaries via grants, saying they are writing them “left and right.” 

The health curriculum and the appropriateness of certain books and materials were discussed. According to McComas, the human sexuality curriculum is state-mandated. While Maryland allows this instruction to begin in third grade, Worcester has opted to wait until fifth grade, and parents can withdraw their children from specific lessons. 

While Shelton-Leslie maintained that school library books must be suitable for their age range, McComas acknowledged that younger parents and educators see the value in these materials despite the sexual content in some high school novels. She said that she recognizes the importance of alternating perspectives. 

Regarding school safety, McComas noted that referral incidents have dropped 25% since implementing the Memorandum of Understanding. 

Shelton-Leslie declared that “discipline is the core of safety,” and Huber encouraged actionable consequences. 

The candidates also expressed displeasure at the rift between the sheriff’s office and the board. While Shelton-Leslie pushed for an open conversation between both parties, McComas recognized that the school system views discipline through an educational law lens, meaning first offenses are dealt with within the walls of a learning environment. Law enforcement uses a more criminal approach. However, she said that she is hopeful the tension is ending. 

Shelton-Leslie’s closing statement reiterated her commitment to college and career readiness, early childhood programs, parental rights, and equipping teachers for success. 

Huber said he intends to make himself easily accessible via an online forum, and, if elected, schedule monthly meetings with guardians. He also expressed the board’s need for a leader “focused on procedure and not rhetoric.” 

To round out the forum, McComas ended on a positive note. 

“Worcester County is one of the most outstanding school systems I have ever seen,” she said. “We have amazing programs, our smaller class sizes help underachieving students, and the teacher support is unreal. Our schools are truly fortunate. We have challenges, but we are truly blessed. We are Worcester.” 

Early voting for the primary election began Thursday, May 2 and runs through May 9, from 7 a.m. to 8 p.m. at the Roland E. Powell Convention Center. The primary election will be held May 14, 7 a.m.-9 p.m., at polling sites throughout the county. The top two finishers in the school board election will move on to the general election on Nov. 5. 

This story appears in the May 9, 2024, print edition of the Bayside Gazette.