As the capital region starts reopening, we hear from the chairman of the Fairfax County Board of Supervisors, Jeff McKay, and D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser. Plus, DCist senior editor Rachel Kurzius gives a preview of D.C.'s June 2 primary.
The Virginia Legislature is at the halfway mark of a 60-day session in which Democrats, in control of both houses for the first time in a generation, are passing bills that will bring changes to almost every aspect of life in the Commonwealth. Susan Swecker, chairwoman of the Democratic Party of Virginia, joins us to talk about this news-breaking session and Virginia’s role in the 2020 presidential election.
One of the most contentious issues this session has been gun control.
- The House passed all gun-related measures in a package put forth by Democratic Gov. Ralph Northam, including a universal background check bill and a red flag law.
- The Senate passed a more modest package, and one that did not include what many gun control advocates consider critical: an assault weapons ban.
- More than 22,000 people last month descended on Richmond to protest gun control legislation.
Republicans have responded to the flurry of progressive legislation with a warning that Democrats are ignoring rural, conservative voters and imperiling the health of state businesses.
- Todd Gilbert, minority leader of the House of Delegates, this week delivered an address bemoaning Democratic moves he deemed unfriendly to business. The legislature wants to raise taxes on gas and cigarettes, and allow collective bargaining for public employees.
- Highlighting the cultural divide between parties at the State House, a pastor invited by a Republican delegate to offer an opening prayer this week gave a fiery sermon against gay marriage and abortion. Many Democrats walked out and some Republicans retreated to the back of the chamber during the speech.
- West Virginia Gov. Jim Justice invited Virginia counties displeased with the direction of state politics to secede to his state. “Vexit,” as some have dubbed the proposal, made national headlines, though few take it seriously.
Virginia will be a much-watched state during the 2020 presidential election
- President Donald Trump lost Virginia to Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton. She took 50 percent of the vote to his 44 percent.
- The Trump campaign has indicated that it may target Virginia for a win in 2020.
- Virginia’s presidential primary is March 3, aka “Super Tuesday,” when 13 other states will also go to the polls. Virginia is the third biggest Super Tuesday state in terms of delegates, and several Democratic presidential candidates consider it a critical state to win, according to WAMU’s Daniella Cheslow.
Montgomery County Board of Education President Shebra Evans won a four-year term representing District 4 in 2016 and is serving her second one-year term as board president. She joins us to talk about potential redistricting and other issues facing Montgomery County Public Schools, the largest school district in the state and 14th largest in the nation.
MCPS is about to embark on a study of the boundary lines that determine which students will attend which of the districts 207 schools.
- The process was kicked off by students who questioned whether the current boundaries create schools which reflect the county’s tremendous racial, ethnic and economic diversity, according to WAMU’s Margaret Barthel.
- But before the boundaries have been studied, some residents are already worried that it will result in busing students to faraway schools, an assumption board members say is unfounded.
- The school district of about 165,000 students has grown markedly in recent decades, and added more than 11,000 students since 2010.
The board recently granted Montgomery County School Superintendent Jack Smith a new, four-year contract.
- Board members have expressed a high regard for Smith, whom Evans credits for efforts to shrink the achievement gap between students from high and low-income families.
- Christopher Lloyd, president of the Montgomery County Education Association, the teacher’s union, says Smith has offered “no coherent plan to move the system forward”.
- Smith’s base salary is 290,000, which is up for negotiation.
MCPS tentatively passed a $2.8 billion budget this week for fiscal 2021.
- The budget represents a $124 million increase from last year.
- It sets aside money to for additional pre-kindergarten seats, mental health counselors and teachers for students who speak languages other than English, among other priorities.
- The board will submit its budget request to the Montgomery County Council by March 1 and aims to pass its final budget on May 21.
Sorting political fact from fiction, and having fun while we’re at it. Join us for our weekly review of the politics, policies, and personalities of the District of Columbia, Maryland and Virginia.
Produced by Lauren Markoe
KOJO NNAMDIFrom WAMU 88.5 at American University in Washington, welcome to The Politics Hour starring Tom Sherwood, I'm Kojo Nnamdi. Tom Sherwood is our Resident Analyst and the Contributing Writer for Washington City Paper. Tom Sherwood, welcome.
TOM SHERWOODGood afternoon, everyone.
NNAMDILater in the broadcast we will be speaking with Shebra Evans, who is the President of the Montgomery County Board of Education. Our first conversation, however, will be with Susan Swecker who is Chairwoman of the Democratic Party of Virginia. She joins us from studios at Virginia Public Media in Richmond. Susan Swecker, thank you for joining us.
SUSAN SWECKERHello. I'm happy to be here with you all today.
NNAMDIFirst, Tom Sherwood, for the first time in history a bill that would give statehood to the District of Columbia is now advancing beyond committee in the U.S. House of Representatives and it looks like there will be a vote on the House floor. House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer saying that there will be a floor vote before the summer. It is historic, of course, but there will be cynics who will say, you know what's going to happen when this goes to the Senate. It's going to die.
SHERWOODWell, yes, but trying to get statehood for the District is kind of like a centipede walking. There's a lot of steps. There was a vote in the House back in the early 90s that failed miserably, 277 to 153. But this is important, because after many many years of lobbying for this virtually all of the metropolitan area members of Congress and Senate are for this. Lots of national organizations have signed on. Eleanor Holmes Norton has made this her number one issue for her time in Congress. And the Democratic Party, once they got the -- took back the control of the House --
NNAMDINancy Pelosi said this was a priority for her.
SHERWOODNancy Pelosi said so. And so, yes it's moving. Yes, it's going to be voted on. Yes, it will probably pass the House. But, yes it will die in the Senate. Mitch McConnell the Senate Majority Leader has no interest in this. The Republicans all worry and know that two Democratic senators would be elected if there were a statehood. There are a lot other issues, but just one more shoe in the centipede towards statehood.
NNAMDISusan Swecker, do you approve of statehood for the District of Columbia?
SWECKERAbsolutely. And I have signed petitions and think it's important that we move in that direction.
SHERWOODOne of the biggest issues was when I asked people is, well, you know, if you're in the suburbs and the District were to become a state, there are hundreds of thousands of people who live in the suburbs that work in the city. You know, the District could impose a commuter tax. And I don't think that people in Virginia would necessarily like that even though whatever the District charged they could deduct it from their state income taxes in Annapolis and Richmond.
NNAMDIIt has no longer apparently become a major obstacle for Democrats in Virginia who in past years had been reluctant to support statehood for the District for that reason.
SHERWOODI would say I am somewhat skeptical. I think some people support statehood for the District, because they know it will never happen. Now I'm not saying that's you Ms. Swecker.
NNAMDISpeaking of cynicism.
NNAMDIThe other hot rumor and, of course, the D.C. statehood bill advancing was not a rumor. But the hot rumor is based on phone calls that people have been receiving. WAMU's Martin Austermuhle reporting today that District of Columbia residents have been receiving phone calls from some kind of polling company with a New York area code number asking questions about whether or not they would approve of D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser as a Vice President running mate for former New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg. And, Tom Sherwood, I'm sure you have a lot to say about this. You have already been on Twitter about it with other people. But, where is this coming from?
SHERWOODWell, first of all any legitimate polling firm would identify itself. It would say, we are the X, Y, Z polling firm. We're doing a survey on whatever. And so -- I don't know how many people have gotten this call. I just have to say the concept that Mayor Muriel Bowser would be Mike Bloomberg's running mate is just not politically viable for many reasons. One the District has three electoral votes. Now Mayor Bowser has more experience as a mayor than Mayor Pete Buttigieg. But the District is not where you go to balance a ticket. And certainly Bloomberg, a New York mayor, would not come to the District to create a ticket. So I think -- I am just totally skeptical that this is any kind of legitimate poll.
NNAMDIAnd not only are you skeptical, but all of the people, who have been seeing on Twitter -- and Mayor Bowser has become mayor by an overwhelming majority of voters. But there don't seem to any supporters of Mayor Muriel Bowser on your or anybody else's Tweeter feed about this who were saying, Yes. Go ahead. I think she'd be great.
SHERWOODWell, it's just -- she's leaving today. She's in route to Houston to campaign for Mr. Bloomberg. So she's one of his national co-chairs. And we know Mayor Bowser has got her hands full. She could easily be appointed to some significant administration job if a Democratic president, Bloomberg or anyone were looking for someone experienced in urban politics, but the idea that she would be the vice presidential candidate -- I said on Tweeter I'm willing to take any legal bets people want to make, because we mentioned that Bloomberg is going to be speaking in Richmond.
NNAMDII was about to say.
SHERWOODIt's a huge deal.
NNAMDIAs a matter of fact, Mr. Bloomberg thinks Virginia can be very very important to his presidential aspirations. And as Tom Sherwood just said he will be speaking in Virginia. Our guest is Susan Swecker, who is Chairwoman of the Democratic Party of Virginia. Have you yet endorsed anyone Susan Swecker?
SWECKERYeah. Let's see. I made a decision when we started this presidential process, this go round that I would not be endorsing. At a minimum, I'm not going to endorse until after Super Tuesday and I'm not sure I will at that point. I think it's important for the party to be seen as, you know, honest brokers and a place where you can come where any individual activist or campaign can come and get good answers from our professional staff. And know that, you know, we're going to be upfront with you. Now our situation is a little different. I mean, it's pretty straight forward. We have a state run presidential primary on March the 3rd. So people go in and vote that day just like any other election day. And then the results of that will determine, who gets how many delegates.
SHERWOODThis Saturday, what's the dinner called?
SWECKERThis is our third annual Blue Commonwealth Gala. We changed it from the old little tired worn out Jefferson Jackson Day Dinner three years ago. And we actually moved up. We've been having it in the summer, but we did move it up this year to try to try to capitalize on the enthusiasm and excitement, but right before Super Tuesday.
SHERWOODAnd now Elizabeth Warren was in Virginia just yesterday. She was in Arlington at Wakefield High School. She got about 4,000 people there. But once you put out your notice that Mike Bloomberg had agreed to come and I know it was open to any presidential candidate, Democratic candidate, did ticket sales go up or down? I think you're sold out, aren't you?
SWECKERYeah. We are sold out at this point, but I think there's a couple of things. I think that the presidential, announcing that was very helpful, but also I think there's a lot of excitement about, you know, the trifecta at the Virginia General Assembly. And people were just really excited and happy about what's going forward. We additionally have reached out to every presidential campaign and invited them. Some of them are in other states right now, but a lot of them are sending surrogates on their behalf.
NNAMDIWell, since we're in that topic here is Jessica in Alexandria, Virginia. Jessica, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
JESSICAHi. My question is do you think that Virginia will be a swing state in 2020?
SWECKERAlthough people want to say Virginia is a blue state. And I never want to say that. I think we are still a purple state. And Donald Trump has made it very clear that he wants to make an active play in Virginia this year. He didn't do that in 2016. That he wants to come in here and make a real effort in Virginia. And we are getting for that right now. And so I do think we're an important state and we have had great success these last couple of cycles. But we're never going to let up on the gas.
NNAMDIOn to the General Assembly, we are half way through a 60 day session of the Virginia legislator that promises big changes for the Commonwealth on everything from gun control to women's rights. That's because for the first time in more than two decades, both the House and the Senate are controlled by Democrats. What's the atmosphere in Richmond right now, Susan Swecker? Are you -- are the Democrats really happy about this? Republicans feel that you're acting like a group of drunk sailors, who now have the keys to the castle?
SWECKERYou know, and you guys will remember this and especially Tom, but I was around 20 years ago when the Democrats lost control.
SHERWOODYou were around before that.
NNAMDITom was around before that.
SWECKERNow you're going to reveal how old I really am.
SHERWOODFor the listeners, I first met Susan in the early 80s. So we just -- when she was an aspiring political operative, but go ahead. You guys are living in, I think the South would say, you guys are living in high cotton.
SWECKERExactly. I mean, I just never thought I'd see the day come. We would get the trifecta and we'd get it back. And then when it happened it happened pretty swift. And the best part about it for me and I think in a lot of people is actually the rich tapestry and diversity of these members of the General Assembly now, which when you have a legislature that looks more like the Commonwealth of Virginia you have a more open and inclusive agenda that gets passed and it is good for everybody. I mean, you know, expansion of voting rights, the ERA on the very first day, passing the ERA.
NNAMDIWhy was that such a priority for you that you passed it on the very first day?
SWECKERWell, I think there a couple of things. We wanted to send a signal that this was important. We'd almost gotten it passed last year, but also we have a new Speaker of the House, the first female Jewish woman Eileen Filler-Corn, a new Majority Leader.
SWECKERYeah, one of your own. And Charniele Herring from Alexandria, and then Senator Louise Lucas from Portsmouth, President Pro Tem, Senator Mamie Locke Majority Leader of the Senate, I mean, and women and African American women are chairing committees. They're in leadership. And just watch them stand up there gavel in and pass the ERA was a monumentus occasion.
SHERWOODNow some of the things people who drive and live in Virginia or going to Virginia appreciate some of the things you've done. The legislature has passed a ban on handheld cell phones. I think Virginia has been the last Wild West state where you could just drive with no hands if you had two phones, the ban of open containers of alcohol, tighter seatbelt restrictions. I remember Virginia even resisted requiring seatbelts until the federal government threatened to cut off transportation money decades ago. You did the changes in reckless driving. That's one thing.
SHERWOODBut also abortion, the Republicans, who proceeded you, had put in restrictions on abortion requiring sonograms. There's just any number of things that have occurred. And the legislature is going to give local governments more power to tax. There's a lot of changes. You guys have made a lot of changes. Republicans are kind of steaming over it. But you would say you delivered on your campaign promises. And the gun control too.
SWECKERCorrect, I mean, this is -- you're exactly right. The voters said they wanted change and we're delivering, again, on gun control and also on climate change. They passed the Clean Economy Act. That will pay the way for 100 percent renewable energy. And we've joined RGGI something that the Republicans were opposed to.
SHERWOODI'm sorry. RGGI?
SWECKERThe Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative.
NNAMDIThank you very much.
SWECKERYeah. I'm sorry. But, you know, this is important stuff. And, you know, I will talk a minute about the gun control. You know, that's something that, you know, Governor Northam came out last summer and, you know, called into special session to address it after the Virginia Beach incident. And Republicans shut it down after 90 minutes and didn't even take up any of the bills, didn't allow any debate, and I think that had consequences on Election Day.
NNAMDIWell, now the House has passed all eight measures that the governor has called for including universal background checks and a purchase limit of one gun per month. But there seems to be some stalling especially in the Senate on an assault weapons ban. Apparently the sponsor of the assaults weapon bill in the Senate has withdrawn it from consideration even though the House approved of it. What do you think is going to happen there?
SWECKERWell, you know, we're still making a little sausage down here. And the House and Senate don't always agree on all their nuisances. And they're going to have to get together and figure that out and come back. I certainly hope they can find something that would ban that. I mean, and look. I'm a rural girl. I grew up around guns. I grew up -- but, you know, guns when I was growing up were used for, you know, hunting and not for -- I wouldn't grow up around assault weapons. In Howland County, the first day of hunting season was a day off. I mean, it was a holiday. It was a school holiday. But, you know, times change.
SWECKERAnd with all the issues we have with mental health and with guns getting in the wrong hands of people, the day of -- you know, I'll just make this point. The day of the gun rally down here, everybody says it was peaceful. Well, it was peaceful. I wouldn't say it was peaceful. We got out of there safe, because of what Governor Northam and law enforcement did to keep us safe. And all the other groups stayed away. So the Virginia Defense League had it all to themselves. I walk out of the Y downtown and there's a guy walking up the street with an assault rifle flopping around like a rag doll. It didn't make me feel very good.
NNAMDIGot to take a short break, when we come back we'll continue our conversation with Susan Swecker. She is Chairwoman of the Democratic Party of Virginia. If you have questions or comments for her give us a call at 800-433-8850. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
NNAMDIWelcome back. Our guest is Susan Swecker. She is Chairwoman of the Democratic Party of Virginia. Susan Swecker, the legislature's measures to restrict guns, loosen abortion restrictions, other votes to advance a progressive agenda have added to the feeling among conservatives that the state has been taken over by people who do not share their values, more specifically expressing Republican frustrations. House Minority Leader Todd Gilbert this week warned that Democrat's willingness to raise taxes, boost labor and mandate green energy would hurt businesses and Virginia's economy. How do you respond to that? Are Democrats in Virginia in your view unfriendly to business?
SWECKERWell, the first thing I would like to say is we have been in the top of best state managed in the country by number one, two or three under several Democratic -- most Democratic governors. So we have strong leadership and a strong business climate. And one of the things that -- these are just things they throw out. I mean, and really I have to say, you know, I think Delegate Herring's, as Speaker Filler-Corn, you know, had about enough mansplaining about Todd Gilbert who just seems to not really understand that the voters of Virginia have spoken. But when you have -- the reason like you have somebody like Amazon, for example, that wants to come to Virginia. What they want are things like livable wage. They want to know that their employees are going to be protected.
SWECKERAnd that's why passing these -- the Virginia Values Act that bans discrimination and housing employment and a public accommodation on the basis of sexual and gender identity is so important. They want to know that Virginia is an open and welcoming state. And look, I get it. It's hard when you lose. I was there and I watched that 20 years ago. But I got to tell you I didn't see the Democratic leaders, you know, being petulant and whining around like this group has.
SHERWOODLet me just talk. One thing you didn't do the legislature did not change the Right to Work law in the state. That was one thing. But you have voted to I believe to raise the minimum wage over a period of years till 2025 to $15 an hour. And I think Virginia, at least for metropolitan Washington is the last jurisdiction to do so. And also you decriminalized marijuana possession making it a fine of $25 for small amounts. And also you're even considering -- I think before the legislature is over this time there may be a law allowing some casinos, which is a huge change for Virginia.
SWECKERYeah. There is a lot. I mean -- and I'll say this. I think the Right to Work will be an ongoing discussion. The Senate referred it to be studied for this year. And, you know, we'll talk about, you know, we'll talk more about that down the road, but you're right. There were a lot of good bills that have been passed that improved the quality of life for workers and their families. You know, the minimum wage, a bill to prevent wage theft and one that's still on the table is allowing for collective bargaining in the public sector. So, again, sausage still being made. But I am confident we are going to come out of here, you know, with a great package to move Virginia forward.
SWECKERAnother thing, you know, Todd Gilbert stood up on the floor in the beginning and said, you're moving too slow. You're not going to get your stuff done. You don't know what you're doing basically. And, you know, the day of crossover the House of Delegates finished their work at three o'clock in the afternoon, which is pretty early. Now he says, you're moving too fast. You know, you're doing too many things. And I just say, Hey, look bud, we're making progress.
NNAMDITom Sherwood, for listeners who do not understand, what is crossover?
SHERWOODCrossover that's the middle of the legislative session where a bill in the House or a bill on the Senate has to pass and be sent over to the other House or it dies.
NNAMDIHere now is John in Fairfax. John, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
JOHNHi, there. I had a question about the gun laws that are being passed. There was a bunch of what would seem like common sense gun laws like introducing an increasing mandatory minimum for criminals that used guns within the commission of a crime that never even made it out of committee. Yet the assault weapons ban that would seek to punish hundreds of thousands of Virginians over magazine capacity in already owned firearms and would actually make it harder for them to continue to keep them by imposing a brand new permit process and potentially taxes. How come the quote, unquote "common sense" gun laws of actually punishing criminals with the use of firearms didn't even make it out of committee?
SWECKERYou know, I can't speak to each and every bill. I mean, there are a lot of them. But -- so that's again a part of the sausage making piece of this. But I don't even really understand why anybody needs to have an assault weapon in the first place. So I think that's just a common sense bill.
NNAMDIJohn, why do you think you need as assault weapon?
JOHNThe so called description of assault weapons with House Member Levine can be seen on video. It's a misconception about what a firearm is. Most of the features on those firearms are actually just to make them more ergonomic. It helps female shooters. It helps people with disabilities, who have trouble shooting firearms. The so-called features on assault weapons actually make it easier for people with disabilities to be able to control their firearms and be able to shoot.
SHERWOODWhy do you -- excuse me. This is Tom Sherwood. Why do people -- I mean, what are the issues on getting an assaults weapons ban or passed is they have to define what an assault weapon is. But we're talking about multi round -- the ability to shot many rounds quickly. Why would anyone want to do that?
JOHNThe ability to shot rounds quickly is the ability to be able to defend your family and defend your home. The Second Amendment doesn't say anything about the right to be able to hunt or be able to do any of those things. It's the right to bear arms to defend yourself and whatever else you need to. Now the fact --
NNAMDIAs part of an organized militia.
SHERWOODIs there any war weapon that you would ban?
JOHNThe problem with trying to define a weapon is that there are old school weapons such lever action rifles that will do the same amount of damage. Most mass shootings are not even caused by rifles. If you look up some of the FBI statistics, rifles in I believe 2018 only caused six deaths in the State of Virginia. Most mass shootings are carried out with handguns not assault weapons or assault rifles.
SWECKERThe governor and leaders in the House of Senate have made it crystal clear that all these measures are constitutional. They've been held up in other states and they are designed to keep people safe. Virginians on both sides of the aisle actually support some common sense measures like universal background checks. Now again I want to say again I'm from Howland County. I know what it's like to grow up in a rural community where hunting is a part of the way of life. But these gun measures aren't designed to fringe on the rights of responsible, responsible gun owners. They are meant to keep people safe and that's what we're doing.
NNAMDIHere now is Ralph in Washington D.C. Ralph, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
RALPHHi, Kojo. You know, I keep hearing these Democrats and, you know, we're going to lose the election and Trump is going to win again. And just get a mirror up and look in the mirror and wonder why. The Senate is saying they're going to protect us by taking away assault weapons. And like the man said assault weapons are a very small portion.
RALPHThey took away guns in London and guess what? They've got more murders in London than they do in New York City. You know what they're doing? They're stabbing each other. So, now what they want to do is they want to take away pointy knives. You've got to get a permit to buy a pointy knife.
RALPHYou know, you ask why I want an assault -- I would like to -- I don 't have a gun, but if I wanted the right to have a gun, Hamilton said, he wanted it in there, for the right to bear arms because of the government. And what we're seeing from the Democrats are, oh, not only do we want to take away the First Amendment, we want to take away the Second Amendment. So, we're going to silence you, and then we're going to take away your guns in case you want to say anything.
NNAMDIOkay. Allow me to have Susan Swecker respond, because we don't have a great deal of time.
SWECKERYeah, I'm not sure there's -- you know, usually, in these conversations, there's not a lot of way to respond and really have a constructive conversation. But I will say even conservative Justice Anthony Scalia said that the Second Amendment wasn't finite. It wasn't finite. It wasn't -- you know, you did not have a right to own a gun if you were a danger to others, and a few other things in there. Just sort of like, you know, in the First Amendment, you have no right to yell fire in a crowded theater.
SHERWOODLet's talk about something that's going to change, and that's voting, making it easier to vote. Unfortunately, as I saw it, the legislations being approved won't take effect until 2022, which I might point out is after the next governor's election in 2021. But there will be same-day registration. There'll be easier absentee balloting. I don't think there's any early voting still, but you did make some changes in making it easier for people to vote.
SWECKERAbsolutely. No excuse absentee voting, which is huge, automatic voter registration, same-day registration. And, you know, here's the other one, and I've got to tell you, I love this one. We are eliminating Lee Jackson Day in Virginia, and we're making Election Day a state holiday.
SHERWOODWhat are you going to call it, just Election Day?
SWECKER(laugh) I guess so. I guess Election Day is a state holiday, right? And we've repealed the onerous photo ID ban.
NNAMDIWell, you mentioned the part of Virginia that you are from, and it's my understanding that that's not that far away from West Virginia, if one looks at a map. (laugh)
SHERWOODDoes it border...
SWECKERI do. I border West Virginia on three sides.
NNAMDIAnd amidst of all this activity, West Virginia Governor Jim Justice decided the time was right to remind conservative Virginia counties to consider seceding to his state, a standing offer (laugh) first made during the Civil War. What do you make of these calls for what some people are calling a Vexit?
SWECKERWell, I saw that he stood there with Jerry Falwell, Jr., and I'd say if he wants to move over, Jerry Falwell, I think West Virginia would be a good place for him to go. (laugh) But there's a story that -- and I don't know if it's true or not, but I love to tell it. Back in the -- during the run-up to the Civil War, that the person from Highland County that was designated to go to the meeting to decide whether or not to secede, we got into cups a little bit the night before and overslept, and that's why we stayed in the Confederacy and didn't join the Union. (laugh) But I have no idea if that's true or not, but this is just all crazy silliness and the kind of stuff that doesn't actually move anything forward at all.
SHERWOODWe'll have a good party tomorrow night.
NNAMDIBefore you go, we got an email from someone who said: would you please ask what the Virginia Democratic Party and nonpartisan groups are doing to increase the number of registered voters in Virginia? And what people can do if they want help? Also, what are the opportunities for the Virginia state government to make registration more automatic, especially for young people, people of color and people in lower-income families, so volunteers don't have to chase people around with clipboards?
SHERWOODWell, they said automatic registration when you're 18.
SWECKERYeah, and I'll just add in, and one thing that didn't pass this year, but, you know, Senator Marston had the bill in that would automatically register you to vote at 16 at the DMV. And it did not pass, so maybe that's something these folks writing in can help us get passed next year and make it a little easier. But, hey, we've got a lot of good stuff going on on that end.
NNAMDIWell, you've got a primary coming up on March 3rd, and registration in Virginia is nonpartisan. So, who can vote in that primary, and what can people do if they're not sure they can vote, or where and when to vote?
SWECKEROkay. So, the first thing is, go to vote at your regular voting place, if you want to vote on Election Day. Absentee balloting is open now, so you can request your absentee ballot or go in and vote by absentee. Now, the thing is, in Virginia, we do not identify by party ID. So, if you go in and we're only having a Democratic primary -- four years ago, we had one on the Democratic side and one on the Republican side. So, you just go in and you ask for a Democratic ballet, and you can vote.
SHERWOODRepublicans are doing a convention.
SWECKERYes. Yeah, they are doing a convention. We find primaries to be more open and inclusive and involve more people, and it's easier. But I would also say to anybody that wanted more information on voting, whether it's the presidential primary or the things that we have done, is just go to VADemocrats.org/vote.
NNAMDIAnd I'm afraid that's all the time we have. We'll be joined shortly by Shebra Evans, who is president of the Montgomery County Board of Education. Susan Swecker, thank you for joining us.
SWECKERIt's a pleasure. Thank you all for having me.
SHERWOODOkay. Thank you.
NNAMDISusan Swecker's Chairwoman of the Democratic Party of Virginia. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
NNAMDIWelcome back. Joining us in studio now is Shebra Evans. She is the president of the Montgomery County Board of Education. Shebra Evans, thank you for joining us.
SHEBRA EVANSThank you for having me.
NNAMDIIf you have questions or comments about anything that the Montgomery County Board of Education is doing, now is the time to call, whether you have praise or whether you want to attack them, (laugh) 800-433-8850. You've been on the Montgomery County School Board for three years. You are in your second year as a one-year term as president. Your board oversees the biggest school district in the state and 14th biggest in the nation. So, let's get to the issues immediately.
NNAMDIRecently a lot of parents and others have expressed anxiety over so-called boundary analysis of Montgomery County schools. What is that, and why is it causing so much angst?
EVANSYou know, I'm not for sure. It's just an analysis. That's what I want to let everyone know. We are, as you said, the 14th largest school district. We have 208 schools. Since 2010, we have grown by -- our student enrollment has increased by more than 25,000 students. In the next six years, we expect to increase our student enrollment by another 11,000 students. So, are just trying to take a comprehensive look at our entire district so that we can see how we are utilizing our schools and cluster boundaries. That's part of our fiduciary responsibility
SHERWOOD(overlapping) You hired a consulting firm WXY.
EVANS(overlapping) That is correct.
SHERWOODI don't know why they didn't put a Z on there, WXY. (laugh) But they're due to have another report. They've done a lot of public meetings around the county.
SHERWOODThey'll report later this month, or when are they coming up with their next report, or first report?
EVANSSo, the next report, the update will be coming out later this month. And we will get our final analysis back from them in June of 2020. So, we try to do extensive community engagement. We've done over...
SHERWOOD(overlapping) Well, you know, I've noticed, you know, in Howard County there were boundaries were redrawn. I think there's an issue in Fairfax, in many places. Some people are saying that the school districts have re-segregated through various development, and that you need to change the boundaries. Where do boundaries come in? When will you discuss changing boundaries? You know, because people buy homes near schools they want to go to. Some people are left out because of that. Some people fear there's going to be more bussing in Montgomery County. Just where is the change of boundaries to put people's minds at ease or get them more excited? Where does that fit?
EVANSWell, you know what? So, in Montgomery County, part of our role on the school board is educational planning of our facilities. So, that's something that we do on a regular basis. When our community members, adults and students have come to our public meetings with WXY, what they have found is that Montgomery County has done over 131 boundaries -- we changed boundaries 131 times since the '70s, right. So, this is a normal, natural part of what we do.
SHERWOODSince the 1970s?
EVANSSince the 1970's, yes. As we build new schools, as we build on additions, we consider boundaries. So, we just want to make certain that -- as I stated earlier, we are growing by leaps and bounds, and we just want to make certain that we are utilizing our facilities to the best of our ability.
NNAMDI(overlapping) Well, let me suggest what might be raising alarms, because apparently, one of the projects, the boundary analysis, one of its objectives is analyzing opportunities to create more diverse schools. For a lot of people, that sets off alarms. Also, maximize the number of students that are able to walk to school. For a whole other group of people, that also sets off alarms. I think -- well, do you see that when you talk about creating more diverse schools, can you see that issues of race and class are affecting how people look at this issue?
EVANSWell, that's one of the factors. When we are considering boundary analysis, we're looking at four factors. We're looking at geographic proximity. We're looking at facility utilization. We are looking at diversity around racial, cultural and socioeconomics. And we are also looking at the stability of school assignments. We're looking at all those things, and we are currently undergoing three boundaries right now. We're looking at Westbrook, Somerset. This is the work of the board.
SHERWOODIt's an ongoing issue.
EVANSIt's an ongoing issue, but I will say, this is an analysis. The board wants to make certain that as we do future boundaries, we are doing undue diligence, that we are taking a look at our entire county, so that one of the factors -- one of the revisions that we made to the policy was to look at adjacency. You know, what we typically do is we stay within the cluster. Now we're trying to look at adjacent clusters, so there will not be students going from one part of the county, like, from Tacoma to Poolesville. That will not be happening.
EVANSWe will be looking at adjacent clusters to see if there's schools that are underutilized. We want to make certain that we are maximizing our facilities to the utmost. I'm a mother. I'm a parent. We do not want our schools to be over...
NNAMDI(overlapping) You have two children in Montgomery County public schools.
EVANSI have two children.
SHERWOODElementary, junior or seniors?
EVANSA middle schooler. Sierra's in the 8th grade, and Sidney is a junior. John F. Kennedy High School and Argyle Middle School.
SHERWOODI want to get to the Kirwan Commission.
NNAMDIBefore you get there, there's some people who want to talk about the issue that we are currently discussing. So, Melissa in Clarksburg, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
MELISSAHi. How are you? Can you hear me?
NNAMDIYes, we can.
MELISSAOkay, great. So, Ms. Evans, my question was for you, and on September 14th of 2018, there was a board meeting. And you gave a very heartfelt testimony about the USA policy using the word especially in terms of demographics. You said, we need to give the kids what they need, where they're at. No matter where they are, we need to provide it.
MELISSAYou also said, and I'm quoting, "I'm not going to be in favor of adding the word especially when we're to give more weight to that one factor." You also spoke about how sad it was when, if you're against this idea, you're automatically labeled a racist, like it was all or nothing. And that brought you sadness. Well, the state policy was ultimately passed, so demographics are weighed more heavily. And I think the first time you got to test this policy was during the Clarksburg Seneca Valley boundary study. And our very diverse community in Clarksburg stated all the arguments you said back in 2018. What happened to that, Shebra Evans, during all the work sessions and meetings we had about the boundary study?
MELISSAEvery time our community would bring up real and honest reasons why we wanted our kids to stay close to our homes, there was no response from the majority of the board, and definitely no support. Many times, the board allowed other...
NNAMDIYou're very deep in the weeds, here. I'm trying to see if Shebra Evans can extract something (laugh) from this very detailed conversation.
MELISSASo, basically, you know, our community was labeled as racist when we didn't want our kids to be bussed out of the community. So, I was just wondering, I hadn't seen that video. And when I saw it, I'm, like, where was that Shebra Evans? We saw eye-to-eye...
NNAMDIOkay. Let me ask Shebra Evans where she was.
EVANSSo, that Shebra Evans is still here. I believe in diversity. I also -- when I go back to -- so, we are currently in pending litigation with the Clarksburg community. But what I will say is that we try to make certain that we maximize walkers. In the Clarksburg Seneca Valley northwest boundary change, we increased the number of walkers. And we did not pick an option that would especially strive to increase diversity. We want to make certain that we include all of our four factors and give it full consideration.
SHERWOODAnd that's one change that you've suggested, not only have you grown by 25,000 students, but the diversity of the student population has changed a lot. But I want to get to the Kirwan Commission that's been ongoing for three years, about how to fund schools. On Monday, I think it's a holiday, but still, on Monday, there is a huge public forum at the state legislature to discuss how the Kirwan Commission will affect statewide funding and county funding. Are you prepared for the -- is the county prepared to put in a lot more money on education under the Kirwan reform? You'll get more money from the state, but the county itself will have to spend more money. Are you ready for that?
EVANSSo, first, I want to thank the caller for calling in. I appreciate her call in. And then, to you, I will say, I will be there on Monday to give testimony. We are in full support of the Kirwan recommendations. We want to fund the promise. We have 166,000-plus students here in Montgomery County. And the funding is very much needed to make certain that we continue to give our students access.
EVANSIn the Kirwan Commission, we are appreciative of the additional funds that we will receive around pre-K, right. We want to make certain that our earliest learners have that access to education to level the playing field. There's recommendations around teachers, increasing their pay.
SHERWOODRight. There's no funding at this point.
EVANSI know they are.
SHERWOODThe leaders have said we're for it and we're going to fund it. I think Mr. Ferguson, the state senate president, said there won't be a bunch of new taxes. But the money's got to come from somewhere, and it can't just be casinos.
EVANSSo, you are correct. I was just in Annapolis yesterday. The Maryland Association of Boards of Education held their legislative reception. And we heard from various delegates and senators talking about the Kirwan Commission, the importance of the funding, and that, is it expensive? It's a heavy lift.
SHERWOODDid you get any solutions on where the money's going to come from?
EVANSWe didn't get any solutions on where the money's going to come from, but we got promises that people are going to work really hard to make certain that we found the funding, because we needed it for our students. And so...
NNAMDIAnd you have approved a budget of $2.8 billion. The council has yet to approve it. We'll see what happens there. But you recently expressed dismay over County Executive Marc Elrich's capital budget recommendations for Montgomery County Public Schools. Why were you disappointed?
EVANSYou know what? Whatever we bring forward, we believe that that's what we need in order to be able to buy the quality education for our students. We have experienced growth, so a good bit of the increase in our budget -- it's 2.8 billion, like you said. We've experienced an increase of student enrollment. So, a good bit of that is going to the additional students that we have in our school system, as well as trying to expand on eliminated disparities that we've seen in education.
EVANSWe are expanding pre-K. We have increased our full-day pre-K program in Montgomery County by 1,000 students. We've opened up two pre-K...
SHERWOODExcuse me. That's a lot of things. How much has Mr. Elrich -- how much money did he not put in that you think he should?
NNAMDIIn the capital budget?
EVANSThat's the capital budget. For the operating budget, the 2.8 billion is the operating budget, so he has not made his -- he will come out on March the 15th with his budget, as well as the county council will need to fund our budget. So, we have put forth a budget that will continue to expand on access and opportunity for our students, around our speakers of other languages. Our teachers...
NNAMDIBut you feel you need more in the capital budget.
EVANSAbsolutely, we need more in the capital budget. We don't...
SHERWOODYou need more everywhere, apparently.
EVANSYeah, we do. We need more everywhere.
SHERWOODYou know, one of the critics of school systems said to me: where have school systems cut funding? And it's always a question of increasing, how much we're going to increase. Has there been anything cut in the school system, where you said, well, we don't need to do this anymore. We don't need to do that anymore?
SHERWOODJust people complain the school budgets always go up, there's never any side...
EVANSHe said, no, we don't cut?
SHERWOODIs there -- I mean, maybe that's unrealistic and maybe that's ignorant criticism, but I hear that from people who say, when have the school systems ever cut funding?
EVANSSo, this is what I will say. You know, we have a tough job, right. And we try to do our best to educate the community on the work of the board. We try to make certain that if there are programs in place that are duplicative, we will cut that, right. We try to make certain that our focus is not on cutting people. We need our teachers in the room. As a matter of fact, we want to diversify our teaching workforce. We can use more male educators of color. We want...
SHERWOODAcross the board, in elementary, middle and high?
EVANSAcross elementary, middle and high school, absolutely. You hear our students say that they may have had one or two teachers of color. So, we want our students to...
SHERWOODThis is coming from an all-female school board. (laugh)
EVANSWell, we have a student -- we have a male student board member.
NNAMDIWell, a couple of things about that board, and one of them is how much money you make. There has now been a study that suggests that instead of what you currently make on the board, that school board members, instead of making what I think is 29...
SHERWOODTwenty-five -- 25, and 29 for the president.
NNAMDI...25, that they should be making $60,000 and the president $70,000. Do you approve of that?
EVANSI do. I do. We have a full-time job. As a full-time, part-time job. Currently, that amount is not being considered. It's 30,000, and then an increase of 35. It's still out, but we want to be able to attract people from diverse backgrounds with diverse perspectives. $25,000 is not a livable wage. It is not a livable wage. And we want to attract the best and the brightest. Just like we want people to be the best and brightest in front of our students, we want those same people in the seats to serve on the board.
NNAMDICampbellWriter tweets: over time, MCPS has shown almost no progress in breaking the achievement gap. Latinx performance on Algebra I has dropped for the last three years. Black performance is back to 2015 lows. Is that correct? And if it is, what do you do about that?
EVANSRepeat the question, I'm sorry.
NNAMDILatinx performance on Algebra I has dropped for the past three years, and black performance is back to 2015 lows, that you're not, in fact, helping to break the achievement gap.
EVANSSo, we are. We are doing a lot of work around closing the gap, increasing access and opportunity. What we have said on the board, as well as our superintendent, we are not afraid to say that we can do better, that what we've done recently is we have shown our data, we've just aggregated in a way that not many do.
EVANSWe are not only looking at it by race, but we're looking at it by socioeconomic status. And we are closing the gap. We are expanding our dual immersion programs. We have five schools that are dual immersion. We are allowing our students to get an Associate's degree, that we have a partnership with Montgomery College. So, our students are graduating with an AA.
EVANSWe are doing universal screening, where we are allowing more students, in particular students in Title One schools, to get access to gifted and enrichment programs.
NNAMDI(overlapping) Allow me to interrupt, because we're down to about two minutes. Your board recently and unanimously approved a four-year contract for Superintendent Jack Smith, who's led the system since 2016. But not everyone loves Jack Smith, though. Here's Jenna, who lives in Potomac. Jenna, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
JENNAThe leadership, there's been a lot of resignations recently, right. We've lost the COO, the chief academic officer, the CFO and general counsel. Typically speaking, when there's that much turnover in leadership, it's a sign that there's something else going on. And I'm wondering if you have any concerns about this very high turnover rate of the leaders within the organization.
EVANSI don't. I know all the people. None of the resignations are associated with one another. So, going back to Dr. Smith, you mention...
NNAMDINot everyone loves Jack Smith.
EVANSYeah, you mentioned not everybody...
NNAMDIThe head of the Montgomery County Education Association -- that's the union that represents teachers, counselors and others -- said that Smith has offered the schools no coherent plan to move the system forward.
SHERWOODAnd he makes 290,000. What would be the new amount that you proposed?
EVANSSo, we are still -- on Monday, we did a tentative adoption. We are still working through contract terms. And so, by the end of the month, we will have that finalized. You know what? I have not been a board member on another board, but I have worked with Jack Smith since my election in 2016. You know, you will not find a more humble, down-to-earth gentleman. He comes from the state. He served as an interim state superintendent. He has a wealth of knowledge, and he is trying to bring the system forward.
EVANSWhat he does really well is when we are looking at the data, he's using a flashlight. It's not a hammer. He's being courageous and saying, you know what, we have not done well for all of our students. And here's what we're going to do going forward.
NNAMDIGot to go. Will you run again?
SHERWOODShe's running now.
EVANSAbsolutely. I'm running for reelection (unintelligible).
SHERWOOD(overlapping) She's got two opponents.
EVANSI do. I have a primary April 28th, and I'm very excited. You know, we have so much more that we want to do. Under Jack Smith's leadership, I believe that we will get that done. We are closing achievement gaps.
NNAMDIShebra Evans is the president of the Montgomery County Board of Education. Thank you so much for joining us.
EVANSThank you for having me.
NNAMDIToday's show was produced by Lauren Markoe. Our next Kojo In Your Community is just over a week away, and we'll be discussing how immigration policies are affecting local families. It's on February 25th at the Columbia Heights educational campus. Learn how to get tickets and more at kojoshow.org.
NNAMDIComing up Monday, Virginia is a top destination for libel tourism. We'll hear about efforts to crack down on SLAPP lawsuits. And author Jason Reynolds on his new role as the national ambassador for young people's literature. That all starts at noon, on Monday. Between now and then, what will you be doing, Sherwood?
SHERWOODGoing to check into that March 3rd Virginia presidential primary. There's some places in Virginia I want to go and talk to people.
NNAMDIHave a wonderful weekend. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
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