Monday, May 23, 2016

montgomery county will build bus rapid transit in four years

After nearly a decade of debate, Montgomery County wants to build a bus rapid transit line in four years, for 20% of the originally estimated cost. While it'll be a better bus service, it may not be so rapid.

27th & Crystal station
Montgomery County could get this, sort of. Photo by BeyondDC on Flickr.

Monday, May 2, 2016

is there really a "war on suburbia" in montgomery county?

Some Montgomery County residents are accusing county officials of waging a "war against suburbia." But the county isn't coming for your single-family house, no matter who tells you otherwise.

Bethesda residents protest the Westbard plan. Photo by Sonya Burke on Twitter.

Wednesday, April 20, 2016

fenton street market owner heads to colorado for a new start

the last Fenton Street Market (for now) in December. Photo by the author.
Over the past decade, you couldn't go far in Silver Spring without running into Megan Moriarty, community organizer and owner of outdoor craft bazaar Fenton Street Market. But in search of a new start and a new career, she headed to Colorado two weeks ago. Meanwhile, the market's got a new owner, but no word on when it'll return.

Moriarty grew up in Montgomery County, attending Sherwood High School and the University of Maryland at College Park, where she got a masters degree in urban planning. For much of the past decade, she's been one of a few young voices in the community, pushing to make Silver Spring more inclusive but also championing it through promoting local artists and business people.

She's been a organizer at IMPACT Silver Spring, served on the Silver Spring Citizens Advisory Board, and was elected president of the East Silver Spring Civic Association. She even convinced both of her parents to move to downtown Silver Spring.

In 2011, Megan was a volunteer at the market when she bought it from founder Hannah McCann. Over the next four years, she added vendors, live performers, and community events. She also expanded into pop-up events like Holidaze, a month-long holiday market, and started Grant Avenue Market, an outdoor antiques market in Takoma Park.

Fenton Street Market was a success, drawing dozens of vendors and thousands of shoppers from across the region. But it was a challenge making it a great place to shop and hang out, Megan told me at her going-away party a few weeks ago.

Monday, March 28, 2016

why montgomery county school board is the race to watch in 2016.

Montgomery County school board elections are usually pretty sleepy. But as the county's once-vaunted schools struggle to serve a more diverse population, the "achievement gap" is causing this year's race to heat up.

March to Close the Gap Rally in Courthouse Square
Montgomery County students marched to protest the achievement gap, which is an election year issue. Photo by the author.
Montgomery County Public Schools has grown rapidly in recent years, but has also become more segregated by race and class. Student performance is slipping, particularly in schools with a concentration of minority and low-income students. School officials have been reluctant to address the problem or even admit that it exists.

Schools make up half of the county's $5 billion annual budget, and the teachers' union's coveted "Apple Ballot" endorsements have had a big influence on local elections. But that's changed as the school system's performance has slipped. Jill Ortman-Fouse won a seat on the board in 2014 after campaigning to reform the system; three months later, superintendent Josh Starr resigned when he realized a majority of the board no longer supported renewing his contract.

Meet the candidates

There are three open seats this year, but two of them have two candidates, who will both go on to the general election in November. But a three-way race has formed for the at-large seat between incumbent Phil Kauffman, retired principal Jeanette Dixon, and former teacher and student board member Sebastian Johnson. One Montgomery, the school equity group I helped start, interviewed all three. (Full disclosure: we've endorsed Johnson.)

Kauffman lives in Olney and was a PTA activist before joining the board in 2008. His wife teaches at Blake High School, which both of his daughters also graduated from (full disclosure: I was friends with them in high school).

He ran as a reformer in 2008, calling for greater transparency in budget decisions and changes to the middle school curriculum. At the time, he said the school board was too cozy with the superintendent and needed to be more independent. Two terms later, he defended keeping Starr as superintendent, and as president of the board in 2014, he joined Starr in threatening to cut programs for high-needs students if the school system didn't get a $15 million budget increase.

Dixon, who lives in East County, is familiar with the challenges facing the county's majority-minority, high-poverty schools. She was principal at Paint Branch High School (and before that, my principal at White Oak Middle School) before retiring three years ago.

Since then, she's been an outspoken critic of the school system and proponent of big ideas. At a League of Women Voters forum on the achievement gap last fall, she said that students should be allowed to attend any high school in the county, regardless of where they live.

In January 2015, she published an open letter blasting Starr, calling him ineffective and saying he only cared about "protecting the MCPS brand." The letter may have helped turn public support away from him. (Inside sources say Starr has been quietly campaigning against her, calling her "dangerous" for the school system.) She's refused endorsements from elected officials, but has a long list of testimonials from faculty she's worked with and former students.

Johnson argues he can provide a new perspective to a board where members are often shut down for going against the grain. At 27, he's by far the youngest candidate, and describes himself as proof that schools can close the achievement gap. A former teacher and student member of the board, he grew up in a single-parent household in Takoma Park before attending Georgetown, Harvard, and the London School of Economics.

He talks about the "intersectionality" of schools and factors outside the classroom, pointing out that students can't learn if their families can't afford health care or stable, decent housing. He wants more "wraparound services" like health centers at schools, while increasing minority student access to the county's largely segregated magnet programs. He hopes his existing relationships with county councilmembers can smooth the often adversarial relationship the board has with other county agencies.

Incumbent's supporters don't have much to say


While Kauffman and Dixon have long histories in the county, and Dixon may most reflect voters' frustration, it seems like Johnson has the most momentum. He's raised over $20,000 (though his campaign stresses that most donations are small), an anomaly when most school board races are won for half that and incumbents barely raise money at all. He's gotten endorsements from several elected officials, including county councilmembers George Leventhal (who he once interned for) and Nancy Navarro (who he served with on the school board), and state delegate Marc Korman.

Kauffman's tried to pull support from his two black opponents by getting endorsements from black electeds like County Executive Ike Leggett, state delegate Al Carr, and county councilmember Craig Rice. But Rice has also publicly made glowing remarks about Johnson, saying, "We need more young people like Sebastian to step up and keep our county moving forward." Board of Education member Judy Docca, who also endorsed Kauffman, donated money to Johnson's campaign.

Normally, the Montgomery County Educators Association (the teachers' union) endorses the incumbent, almost guaranteeing their reelection. But they didn't endorse Kauffman or anyone else, suggesting that the union's members are split. That may reflect a broader disagreement about the school system.

Kauffman's supporters (like Starr's supporters) might argue that while things aren't perfect, the current leadership is doing a pretty good job. Dixon's and Johnson's supporters have a growing body of evidence to say that Montgomery County schools aren't doing enough to serve an increasingly diverse student body. If the 2014 election is a sign, this argument might be gaining ground.