Editor’s note: With early voting starting July 7, Bethesda Beat will be running election wrap-ups of the races for Montgomery County offices and the General Assembly. Today we focus on the school board races.

This year, 13 candidates are running for four seats on the Montgomery County Board of Education, with a guaranteed new representative in District 1 as incumbent Judy Docca isn’t running for another term.

There are four candidates running in that district, the most of any race.

Incumbents are running in each of the other races on the ballot: District 3, District 5 and at-large.

Although school board members run by district, all eligible voters in the county can vote for each seat, regardless of where they live. School board races are nonpartisan; the top two vote-getters in each race will move on to the general election in November.

[For more information on candidates for local, state and federal races, check out the Bethesda Beat voters guide.]

Here are the candidates in each race:

District 1

Alex Fahmy

Fahmy, a Damascus resident, has received attention for his strong opinions about LGBTQ issues. In April, he posted on his now-deleted Twitter account: “Any Montgomery County teacher found to be teaching minors about sex and sexual preference should be immediately fired, arrested, and investigated as pedophiles.”

A graduate of Damascus High School, Fahmy says if he is elected, he intends to block implementation of COVID-19 mask and vaccine mandates in schools (neither is currently mandated by Montgomery County Public Schools).

Fahmy, 27, believes parents should have full access to the curriculum being used in classrooms and that teachers’ salaries should be based on the amount of work they do.

Fahmy has not run for political office before. He works in sports marketing and public relations, according to his biography.

Jay Guan

Guan returns to the school board races after a failed campaign in a crowded field for an at-large seat in 2020.

An aerospace engineer from Clarksburg, Guan says he is running to “improve transparency and restore public trust” in the public school system.

Guan has focused his campaign on the need for more easily accessible data about students’ performance and demographics, as well as other MCPS functions. He’s also highlighted that he feels the district needs to improve its communication with families.

He has also been an advocate for ensuring all students have access to science, technology, engineering, arts and math curriculum (STEAM).

He has served on committees within the Montgomery County Council of Parent-Teacher Associations and on MCPS’ Asian Pacific Student Achievement Action Group.

Grace Rivera-Oven

Rivera-Oven grew up in Montgomery County and graduated from Gaithersburg High School, according to her campaign website.

Her website says the school district’s focus should be to “ensure we can provide the kind of quality education that equips and prepares all our children for college, offers our teachers the tools they need to be effective, and addresses safety concerns so that there are no hesitations regarding the protection of our children in our schools.”

Her main priorities include addressing school safety and bullying, ensuring equitable access to mental health care, closing the achievement gap, recovering from the pandemic and fighting to eliminate students’ food insecurity.

Rivera-Oven received the endorsement of the county teachers union, the Montgomery County Education Association.

Esther Wells

Wells, a Gaithersburg resident, says she was compelled to run for the school board after witnessing the consequences of the COVID-19 pandemic and virtual classes firsthand with her 9-year-old son, who has autism spectrum disorder and ADHD.

Wells moved to the United States with her family from Trinidad and Tobago when she was 8 years old and attended Montgomery County public schools. She graduated from Watkins Mill High School.

If elected, Wells says one of her main priorities would be to help community members understand the school district’s nearly $3 billion budget. Wells is a certified public accountant. She would also aim to expand access to financial literacy courses.

Wells is running as a slate with at-large candidate Michael Fryar and District 5 candidate Dawn Iannaco-Hahn.

District 3

Scott Joftus

Joftus was appointed to the school board in the fall following the death of longtime member Pat O’Neill.

The co-founder of an education consulting firm, Joftus had not previously run for public office.

In his time on the board, Joftus has pressed the board and MCPS to work more collaboratively.

Communication and the response to the COVID-19 pandemic could have been handled better by MCPS, he says, but he believes the board has taken “significant strides to improve,” like hiring a medical officer and reorganizing the structure of the district’s central office in Rockville.

Joftus has said he believes the most important issue facing the school district is a “mental health crisis among students and staff.” He has touted his work in five months on the board to help expand access to virtual mental health care and establish wellness centers at high schools.

Julie Yang

A former teacher and college and career counselor in MCPS, Yang has received the coveted endorsement from the county teachers union.

Yang also believes addressing the mental health needs of students and staff members is paramount. More long-term and proactive measures are needed, she says, like ensuring the topic is a routine discussion item during school board meetings.

Better communication between board members and the community is also important, Yang said.

She has been active in parent-teacher associations and co-chaired the Asian Pacific American Student Achievement Action Group.

Marcus Alzona

Alzona says the most important issues facing MCPS are keeping schools open and listening to principals “who unanimously want police officers in MCPS schools.”

In his submission to the Bethesda Beat voters guide, he claimed incorrectly that last year “MCPS voted to strip funding for school resource officers,” referencing the county government’s decision to change an existing program by removing police officers from schools and instead assigning them to patrol areas around schools.

The board “needs a school board member that will push back on reflexive school closures not backed by the science, and who will listen to the MCPS principals who unanimously want SROs,” he also wrote.

He is a graduate of Montgomery Blair High School in Silver Spring. He ran unsuccessfully for Senate in 2018, and lives in Bethesda.

District 5

Brenda Wolff

Wolff is serving her second consecutive one-year term as the school board’s president.

A former attorney, Wolff has often advocated at the dais for MCPS to provide equitable opportunities and resources to schools across the county, particularly focusing on the east county, which she believes is often underserved.

In her submission to the Bethesda Beat voters guide, she said the most important issue in this year’s race is “ensuring that all students are receiving challenging instruction and increasing student outcomes across the board” by expanding access to programs and mitigating learning loss.

Wolff, a Silver Spring resident, was previously a District 14 representative on the Montgomery County Democratic Central Committee.

Valerie Coll

Coll retired from MCPS in June after teaching for 32 years.

A Colesville resident, she says she is running because the school board and school district need to be more transparent and accountable. Coll has pledged to not add any staff positions to the district’s central office until “student needs are met” in areas like mental health, building maintenance and reducing class size.

She has said that the board lacks the perspective from someone like herself who has taught at the elementary school level, so their needs are often overlooked.

Having that perspective is important, she says, because the largest share of students and employees are in elementary schools.

Coll has not previously run for political office but was an active leader in the county teachers union and has received the group’s endorsement.

Dawn Iannaco-Hahn

A licensed clinical professional counselor, Dawn Iannaco-Hahn says she was moved to run after a school board meeting in February that focused on students’ mental health needs, and she realized “something has to be done.”

She has become a familiar face during public testimony portions of school board meetings, often challenging MCPS policy decisions and pressuring leaders to implement more mental health services more quickly.

She says her experience as a therapist would be beneficial because she is trained to listen to others’ needs. Addressing the mental health needs of students and staff members is her top priority, she says. Establishing a more robust and comprehensive program that builds on partnerships with county agencies is important, she says, and the district needs a better social/emotional curriculum that is more relatable to students.

Iannaco-Hahn is running as a slate with District 1 candidate Esther Wells and at-large candidate Michael Fryar. She lives in Silver Spring.

At-large

Karla Silvestre

During her first term on the school board, Silvestre often has been an advocate for Hispanic and Latino students’ needs. She is the board’s vice president.

A Silver Spring resident, Silvestre is also the director of community engagement at Montgomery College.

She says mitigating learning loss caused by the pandemic and addressing students’ and staff members’ mental health needs are the most important issues facing MCPS now.

She plans to help implement tutoring and summer school programs that prioritize the students most negatively affected by the pandemic’s school closures and implement a countywide social/emotional well-being program.

In previous interviews, Silvestre has also emphasized the need to expand access to early childhood education and career and technical education programs.

Michael Fryar

Fryar, an attorney, ran unsuccessfully in 2020 a crowded race for an at-large seat on the school board.

In 2020, his platform (like that of many other candidates) focused on the countywide school boundary analysis. This year, he has said the biggest issue facing MCPS is helping students recover academically from school closures caused by the pandemic. He has also emphasized the need to focus on supporting students’ mental health needs.

His main priorities would be to establish more magnet schools and charter schools; expand access to trade programs; reduce the number of administrators; and “radically expand” the number of teachers, social workers and school psychologists.

An outspoken critic of the teachers union, Fryar says the prolonged school closures were “the demands of the” union. Fryar lives in Gaithersburg.

He is running as a slate with District 5 candidate Dawn Iannaco-Hahn and District 1 candidate Esther Wells.

Domenic Giandomenico

Giandomenico says he decided to run for the school board after attempting to navigate the school district’s systems for children with special needs for his daughter, who has autism.

He believes the school system is not responsive to parents and lacks accountability. The most important topics to address within the school district are teacher burnout and students’ recovery from COVID-19 learning loss, he says.

Giandomenico has pointed to some recent troubles in the district — like an incident in 2019 in which a 5-year-old kindergartener was berated and screamed at by county police officers after leaving a Silver Spring elementary school, a shooting at Col. Zadok Magruder High School in Derwood, a vote of “no confidence” in MCPS administration by the teachers union — as reasons he would want to bring more skepticism to the board.

A Wheaton resident, Giandomenico previously worked as the director of government relations for Project Lead The Way and as a senior director of education and workforce policy for the U.S. Chamber of Commerce.

When is the election?

The primary election is July 19. Early voting begins July 7. Mail-in ballots will be accepted as long as they are postmarked by 8 p.m. July 19 or are dropped into a ballot drop box by that time.

Caitlynn Peetz can be reached at caitlynn.peetz@bethesdamagazine.com

Caitlynn Peetz

Caitlynn Peetz can be reached at caitlynn.peetz@bethesdamagazine.com