Forums Around Town

We’re a month out from Election Day! We have a few more forums coming up around Howard County. Scott Ewart has a helpful list here. If you’re unable to make it to a forum in person, check out http://www.vote411.org/ for Candidate information.

Each forum has its own personality. It’s always exciting to do a new one. Rarely do we get the questions beforehand.

One where we did is the Columbia Village Board forum coordinated by Oakland Mills. We submitted our responses and you can view them here. Next week, we have the chance to expand on one of the questions.

Thank you to all who coordinate these forums. They are a lot of work, but they provide an opportunity for us. Countywide candidacies present challenges, but thanks to civic groups, we get a chance to spread our message to multiple constituencies.

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Testimony FOR Budget Review Committee

Last night, I joined several members of the community in support of Dr. Ball’s bill CR 88 that creates a School Budget Review Committee under the aegis of the Council, rather than the Board of Education.

My testimony:

Good evening. My name is Kirsten Coombs. I am a member of the Town Center Village Board and my testimony is my personal opinion. I am a Certified Public Accountant, although not practicing currently. I have 20 years of experience in the accounting field & I have an MBA.

When the Citizens’ Operating Budget Review Committee was suspended in 2014, HCEA asked whether there was interest in convening an unofficial committee. I was glad to join and began working on the analysis of this $800 million budget.

That process taught me that the Superintendent and the Board of Education majority are unwilling to answer simple questions about the taxpayer money they receive. A budget demonstrates priorities for the coming year. The 2016 budget and now the 2017 one indicate that the Superintendent prioritizes higher class sizes, fewer instructional assistants, fewer textbooks, unproven trendy sounding programs and eliminating special education services. The Budget director of HCPSS referred to saving taxpayer money on special education, which Ms. Terrasa called offensive. Despite a forecasted increase in children with special needs, the Superintendent did not add any staff to school based services to address this increase.

An appropriate budget process should address the coming year as it is, as well as system priorities. Given that we are discussing taxpayer money, the budget process should also be transparent to the citizens. Unfortunately, the budget process has not even been transparent to some sitting Board of Education members. The Superintendent has dismissed Board members’ questions about it.

Please support this legislation to begin the process of restoring trust in our school system. Thank you.

Town Center TIF

Last night, I wore my Town Center Village Board hat at a PATH meeting that provided useful information on Tax Increment Financing. This PDF explains the basics of TIF, so I’ll leave it at – A development increases the property or sales taxes on a piece of land, so they get to keep the increase, or increment. That reimburses them for some of their costs of the project. Howard County, or at least the County Executive’s administration, is thinking about doing this for the Downtown Columbia development. This proposal is also somewhat tied to the affordable housing that Howard Hughes wants to build…on county land. The article says that’s not true, but I don’t see how one can unlink them.

Usually, TIF is used for “blighted” areas – think unoccupied, dilapidated buildings.

During the recent primary campaign for Board of Education, many people were disturbed by one candidate’s use of “inner-city” Columbia.

These two things are not true. Yes, we have extreme poverty in parts of Howard County and yes, there are some homes that need external fixes. But blight? I live pretty much as close to the area being discussed as possible and I do not see blight. Maybe some run-down homes that need investment, but blight? Yes, we have some crime, but let’s get some perspective. We have a wide range of socioeconomic circumstances that we need to deal with.

But is giving away public dollars to a private corporation the solution? Usually, counties/cities needing renewal offer developers incentives to make a not-so-attractive spot more attractive. They forfeit the increase in tax dollars, hoping that other stars will align that make a good investment.

I wonder how much our County has appropriated for  TIF for FY 2017. Oh, $70 million & more in 2018? That article, however, is outdated. Last night, County Council member Jen Terrasa said it is now $120 million with another $40 million more in future years.That’s not to say that it would all be for Downtown Columbia, but…probably fair to assume most of it would be.

Juxtapose that number with the “shortfall” between the County Council approved HCPSS budget and their request – $48 million. Granted, many of us do not believe that the increase needed to be that much. A bunch of the increase was in health insurance costs, which has been wrong for the last several years.

But…How much would I love to fund an increase in special education? More reading and math specialists? PARAEDUCATORS in Kindergarten? (Sorry, I’m yelling, that one is really irksome to me. “Other counties don’t use paraeducators as much as we do?” “We’re NOT other counties!”)

Politics and negotiations are about trade-offs. But this TIF proposal, regardless of what the number is, seems rather one-sided.

On a positive note, it seemed that 95% (and yes, that’s particularly specific) of the people at the meeting opposed using county money for a TIF incentive. But the way I see it now, I see a 3-2 vote in favor occurring in September.

Eight Days a Week…

Since I worked on another campaign as the Field Director, I knew exactly what Early Voting would entail. Oh, wait, this time I was the candidate.

Let me tell you, it was great! I had so many conversations with people about their concerns and issues. One woman stopped to tell me I was wasting my time, but Board of Education is a down-ballot race. Another candidate and I were stopped by a gentleman who had initially eliminated us. We were able to change his vote to us after a few minutes’ discussion. Many people come to the polls ready for Senate or President, but a personal connection can make a difference in a this race. I don’t have the money for TV adverts and for some reason, CNN is not preempting presidential news coverage for Howard County’s Board of Education race.

But the Baltimore Sun/Hoco Times/Columbia Flier are certainly covering it! That is much appreciated. In addition, they endorsed me and my fellow Educator Apple Ballot candidates – saying that we have “spines”and “charisma.” (When I was five, I think they called me “annoyingly precocious.” 😉 )

I also used my time at the polls to deepen friendships with other candidates and their surrogates, knowing that good relationships with other community leaders will be important as a Board member. I have been friendly with my fellow candidates despite some major differences of opinion with the incumbents. As a Town Center board member, I have some different opinions from my fellow board members, but discussions have always been collegial. I plan to bring that to the Board of Education in December.

If you would like to see the current Board in action, please check out this video (Click on April 21 7:30) from last night’s budget discussion. There was a wee bit of name calling…

Maryland had record voter turnout for Early Voting – Howard County had almost 10% of eligible voters turn out in the past eight days. Check Scott E’s blog for more detail on daily and party turnouts.

Primary day is Tuesday, April 26 from 7 AM to 8 PM. If you’d like to help to hand out my campaign literature, please contact me at kirsten@kirstencoombs.org. An hour or two would be awesome. But if you can’t, please support me by telling your friends & neighbors who might not have tuned into the Board campaigns. The top six candidates will go on to the November General Election. With your help, I will be one of those six.

THANK YOU!!!!

Chasing Snow (with a Grain of Salt)

As my husband got ready in the dark for work this morning, I considered telling him to pack a change of clothes in case the weather was bad. He works in McLean, VA, a mere 35 miles away that seems 135 miles when it precipitates. But I reconsidered after realizing 1) he grew up north of Scranton, PA and 2) he can walk out his office building and into one of the Tysons malls. And 3) it was only a two-hour delay in Howard County.

So I snoozed only to wake up to learn Howard County had closed the schools while leaving the administration open. Sigh. Day #7. Five-day weekend. And then next Monday being a holiday. Sighhhh….

As a candidate, I hear two questions most often. The first is about whether I would have extended the superintendent’s contract for another four year term. In case you aren’t sure on that answer, it’s a no. Because I’m running and I’m an accountant who oddly enough passed her Government & Tax part of the CPA with an 89*, I went to the Budget work session around lunchtime. So I had a seat!

The second question or comment I hear, especially right now, is “Can you do something about the snow closing?” My answer is – I don’t know. I’ve watched the explanations, spoken to friends formerly in county government, seen my Facebook page blow up, etc. I think we’ve become very nervous, especially in the wake of Anne Arundel’s dust-ups over the past couple of years. There is no winning. Even Justin Berk was off today.

I went out for lunch and grocery shopping and Lil was biking this afternoon. The rain we had actually aided in the snow melt.

One of my friends is a teacher and suggested that the days off are not the only problem. It’s putting the additional days all at the end of year. If you are taking a one-semester class and miss all six days at the end of the first semester class, but add them to the end of the second semester class that had no skipped days, what is the point?

My revised answer to the second question is this: I would like to challenge the Calendar Committee to consider this marking period question. This has been a problem for a few years, so let’s be creative with the ideas. Let’s discuss this with open minds and the knowledge that compromise will not suit everyone.

And if I hear word of anybody doing the inside-out PJs thing to wish for another snow day, well, I’m dropping off my kid and her friends at your house for the snow day!

*I got mocked for that score because all you need is a 75. And I wasn’t doing government or tax accounting. We accountants are an odd bunch.

 

 

Substituting Parents for Paraeducators

Ever have one of those days that reinforces your decision to take a risk? Today was one of those for me.

A friend with two children in another part of the county invited me over to speak to her friends about my candidacy. Within a few minutes, I heard something that greatly distressed me.

But rewind to about this time a year ago:

Part of my interest in running for the Board of Education came from my work on the Citizens’ Operating Budget Review Committee last winter/spring (a committee put on hiatus by the Board of Education). One specific budget item dealt with the cuts to kindergarten paraeducators. I’d spent time in my daughter’s classroom enough to know the importance of these educational staff. Small group breakouts, getting materials ready, helping kids with activities, making sure they have lunch, etc. – there is a variety of things they do to assist educators.

At this particular school, they are dealing with staff shortages by using parent volunteers. First of all, let me say that every parent should try to volunteer in some manner at their children’s school. Volunteering gets you an inside glimpse of the school and creates a rapport between staff and parents.

But there’s a difference between volunteering and filling staffing gaps. I used to have a discussion with a former HCPSS teacher about how I was the parent making trips to and from the system print shop. If educational staff need materials printed for educational reasons, then shouldn’t there be provisions for transporting them? (I stopped doing this about two years ago and the system had begun returning finished projects to the school, but still asked for a volunteer to deliver projects to the shop.)

We all know how high our property and income taxes are. And I believe nice things cost money. I’m so glad there are dedicated parents helping out our schools, but… why do we need so many parents to help out our schools?

Our budget is not prioritizing the classroom.

Choose Advocacy

Over the past few years, I have learned a lot about the different advocacy groups here. We have so many intelligent, informed and caring people in Howard County. In recent days, I have been proud and impressed with my neighbors.

Monday night, I attended an event for Grassroots. If you aren’t familiar with their mission, please look at their website. They help displaced people with medical care, counseling, financial help and food & shelter.

At the Howard County state delegation forum Tuesday night, the Community Action Council asked for an expansion of their food bank facilities. Demands on the county food bank have been increasing exponentially. The amount requested seems rather small and Delegate Frank Turner asked whether our food bank compares to Anne Arundel County.

The Police Department and others supported a bill to combat human trafficking. Some activists had visited questionable establishments to gather information and provide resources to potential victims. Entering such places is risky, but they are trying to help innocent people.

Delegate Miller & Delegate Atterbeary proposed two bills regarding the Howard County Public School System on transparency and election system, respectively. School employees that testified opposed both bills, which concerns me. Residents supported both bills overwhelmingly.

There were dozens of people who came to Ellicott City on a cold, rainy night to advocate for their issues. While I might not agree with everyone’s viewpoints on a particular issue, I was happy to see an informed community willing to speak on the record.