Board of Education is all-female for the first time ever

Karla Silvestre and Brenda Wolf sworn in to Board Dec. 3


Photos courtesy Brenda Wolf and Karla Silvestre.

New Board members Brenda Wolf (right) and Karla Silvestre (left) were sworn in Dec. 3 for the District 15 and At-Large seats. Both candidates said they were excited to serve in their first elected positions.

The Montgomery County Board of Education is all-female for the first time ever after Karla Silvestre, the former co-chair of the MCPS Latino Student Achievement Action Group, and Brenda Wolff, a civil rights attorney, were sworn in Dec. 3. The new members replaced former Board president Michael Durso and member Jill Ortman-Fouse, who stepped down this year.

After a 44-year career in education, former Board of Education president Michael Durso retired. Former PG&E Energy Trading credit analyst Shebra Evans was elected Board president Dec. 4.

Durso said he’s excited to spend time traveling and reading. His experience on the Board was both demanding and rewarding, and the highlight of his career was getting elected as the Board president and and nominating superintendent Dr. Jack R. Smith, he said.

Durso said the process for finding a new superintendent was especially difficult because the first candidate the Board selected had resigned, so they had to restart the entire process with an interim superintendent in office and once more find a candidate that pleased everyone.

Durso is grateful for the opportunity to serve on the Board and will miss interacting with the MCPS community, he said.

“It’s been a good experience, one that I never really sought out or planned on,” he said. “To be able to see the school system from that perspective—to see so many people who work incredibly hard—that’s been pretty special.”

The all-female Board follows a national and state-wide trend of female representation in government. This year, 60 percent more women ran for office in the midterms than in the 2016 elections, and the number of women on the Maryland legislature increased by four percent when 71 women were elected or reelected.  

“I think it’s a teachable moment, helping students understand that for many years there were all-male boards and nobody thought anything about it,” Silvestre said. “Now that we have an all-female board, it’s an opportunity to understand the history of power, leadership and elected office.”

The day after the Dec. 3 swearing-in ceremony, Board members unanimously voted Shebra Evans as the new president and selected the committees they wanted to serve on.

Evans, who used to work as a credit analyst at PG&E Energy and Trading, lives in a section of the county with many low-income families, and Evans’ children attend a Title One school. She wanted to be president of the Board because she thinks her unique perspective will be advantageous in the Board’s efforts toward diminishing the opportunity gap. Evans said she’s excited to be the spokesperson for the Board and work with the diverse group of members.

“For the first time since I’ve been living in Montgomery County we have a Board that reflects the diversity of the school system. For me, it was not so much being all female, but it’s that we have African American women, we have Asian women, we have white women, we have Latina women on the Board,” Evans said. “I feel like all the different perspectives and voices that we have on the Board is reflective of the student body.”

Silvestre defeated Julie Reiley with 51 percent of the vote in the Nov. 6 election for the at-large seat, while Wolff ran unopposed for the District 5 seat.

Silvestre hopes to improve graduation rates across the county by implementing and expanding college preparatory programs like College Tracks, a program that has partnered with four MCPS schools to help students apply to college and understand financial aid packages, and ACES, which pairs students at risk of not graduating with mentors to ensure they remain on track academically.

Silvestre began teaching English to non-native adult speakers when she was a student at Florida State University and continued while earning a master’s degree in education at the University of Pennsylvania.

As co-chair of the MCPS LSAAG, a group that focuses on narrowing the achievement gap for Latino students and other minorities, Silvestre worked alongside the Board to ensure low-income Latino students have the resources they need to succeed.

Silvestre, who immigrated from Guatemala when she was eight years old, wanted to serve on the Board because she thinks the school system should provide more resources for immigrant and low-income families, she said.

“I moved to Maryland, and I started to feel there needed to be a deeper understanding of families with poverty,” Silvestre said. “I felt like I wanted to do more and be really involved in the process where key decisions are being made.”

Wolff is a member of the Montgomery County Democratic Central Committee and former acting director of the National Institute on Education of At-Risk Students. She wants to provide universal Pre-K and increase funding for school renovations and additions. She also hopes to improve accountability in public schools, she said.

“I want to ensure that every dollar we invest in programs promotes the successful outcomes for students,” Wolff said. “I want to be sure that whatever we’re doing is actually working.”

Both Wolff and Silvestre centered their campaigns on addressing and decreasing the opportunity gap. The opportunity gap results from factors such as race or socioeconomic status that predict a student’s academic achievement. The new members plan on addressing this through modernizing school buildings so all students have improved or equal resources and providing dual-language programs for English learners, where elementary school classes would be taught in both English and Spanish.

Student Member of the Board Ananya Tadikonda became the first ever SMOB to become the chair of a Board committee when the Board members elected her chair of the Strategic Planning Committee, which focuses on long-term adjustments to schools. Tadikonda won’t serve the entire term from Dec. 4 to Nov. 30 as chair because her SMOB term ends before then, so Silvestre will assume her role as chair when Tadikonda leaves July 1.

Tadikonda has met both Wolff and Silvestre and said she’s excited to work with them because of their differing perspectives that will benefit the Board. She’s also looking forward to the Board being all-female.

“I think it’s a huge statement to the community about women in leadership and what we can do,” Tadikonda said. “There’s a lot of stigma against women running for positions and being in leadership that has been instilled in our country generationally, and I think this could really dispel that because we are a body of education and students will see that body and see that it’s all women.”

Patricia O’Neill was elected to her sixth term as the Board’s vice president Dec. 4. She said she’s excited to work with a “monumental” all-female board. Although the Board is composed entirely of women, she said it won’t change its mission or goals.

“I don’t think our policy decisions are driven by gender. They are driven by fairness and equity,” O’Neill said. “All of us have to work for all students regardless of gender, regardless of race.”