By Zach Sparks
[Editor's note: This article was updated on January 18 to reflect developments that occured since the original discussion in December.]
At-home parent, education advocate and former ACLU of Mississippi Volunteer of the Year — these are some labels that define Dana Schallheim, District 5’s first elected school board member.
Schallheim was sworn in for a six-year term beginning December 3. She hopes to bring her fiscal knowledge (she holds a Master of Business Administration degree) and 32-year volunteer service to her new role.
During a conversation in late December, Schallheim outlined her goals and expectations.
Q: It will take time for the board to review the budget Superintendent George Arlotto proposed, but I’m sure you’re happy with the idea of more teaching positions and $35.1 million for employee compensation increases?
A: Class size, wages and equity were all huge topics during the campaign trail. We need to get back to meeting school need at the school level. We must also keep in mind even if we ask for everything we need, not only are we unlikely to be fully funded, but we are also unlikely to be able to fill every position since Maryland is a net importer of teachers. Dr. Arlotto’s recommended budget chips away at reducing class size and at pay inequity but doesn’t go far enough at correcting either problem.
I believe equity is important, not just for morale but also for retention. If we train these amazing teachers, we want them to stay. We don’t want to train them and then lose them to surrounding counties, so I’m a huge proponent of the restoration of lost steps or any great stride toward that goal.
Q: You want to align start times with research findings. What do you see as your biggest obstacle?
A: This is a multifaceted problem. High schools begin at 7:30. On the other side of the coin, we have very late-starting elementary schools. I have a daughter in elementary school who is up hours before her school, which starts at 9:35. That is problematic. Late-starting elementary schools squander prime learning time every day, 180 days a year. On the back end of that, children who attend late-starting school get off the bus as it’s getting dark. Late-starting elementary schools don’t allow children to play outside after school. There is no time to be a kid, go out back and play, kick a ball around, build a fort, etc. because it’s getting dark and the dinner hour is fast approaching.
I don’t want to do a wholesale swap of high school and elementary school start times, but I believe that we can do much better than we are doing. In order to make any changes, we first need to figure out why the software that was implemented isn’t being utilized by staff. We need to make sure that staff are trained properly to utilize the software. I have no doubt that the transportation staff work very hard at what they do. I just think if they are feeling lost, we need to ask for some direction and get a consultant to assist with training. Once the software is dialed down, we can use that software as it was designed and intended. We could have scenarios that shorten that window between 8:00 and 9:15 or 9:30 so that the elementary schools can start earlier, because those kids are generally up earlier, as well as create a healthier environment for our high school students.
When we are sleep deprived, the challenges that face our daily lives feel more insurmountable than they really are. It compounds the stress in high school. It compounds feelings of depression. It definitely affects grades. It affects happiness. We are beginning to see the idea of later-starting high schools picking up steam across the country. Seattle Public Schools, slightly smaller than Anne Arundel County Public Schools, just moved their start times and they are seeing fabulous results. I know we can do it too; we just have to try.
Q: During your campaign, you mentioned the need to bring fiscal oversight and accountability back to the board. How was the board lacking in that regard?
A: This is not a slam or an insult or meant to be offensive to previous boards. They worked very hard. I’m now witnessing firsthand what it takes and I applaud all of the former board members for their service. However, after studying the budget, there are areas of concern. Why are we spending millions on consultants? Why are professional salaries much higher than what our teachers are receiving? Why is the transportation department asking for an additional $4.6 million? Taxpayers have a right to know what their money is being spent on.
In terms of fiscal accountability, what I really mean by that is making sure we are taking every effort we can to put every available dollar and cent to meeting school need at school level. In doing that, I would hope that the board as a body would want to do at least a human capital audit of Riva Road to figure out if there is any way we can be more efficient at the central office and really try our best in this budget cycle to make sure that the schools get what they need. At the end of the day, this is about putting our students first. We need to make sure that every last resource is put there first, above everything else.
Q: The Commission On Innovation & Excellence In Education – also known as the Kirwan Commission – recently suggested a $4.4 billion increase in education spending to make Maryland more globally competitive. Lawmakers have asked to table major changes until 2020, but how might the commission’s report affect Anne Arundel County?
A: I do have some concerns about the Kirwan Commission. Money is great. We need the money in the schools, no doubt. However, that money should not come with unmanageable or burdensome strings that would adversely affect our children, our students, or put extra strings on that money that limit the board’s ability to govern. I hope that any additional funding would not chip away at the autonomy we have as a school system. Obviously new funding formulas are long overdue; however, additional funding should not come with additional strings or tests or withhold money from schools that don’t meet new standards recommended by the commission, because our children are deserving of that money.
Q: Are there any other big issues you’re especially excited to tackle?
A: There is so much that I want to tackle. I started out with a pretty small platform mostly around decreased class sizes and aligning pay and working conditions with surrounding counties. I started with that, and as I met people on the trail from various groups, from every background, everywhere on the political spectrum and various cultural and religious minority groups as well, my platform grew over the last year and I continue to learn.
I want to hear from constituents not just in District 5 but across the county. I want to be as responsive as I can to concerns. My ability to be effective will be determined by how willing I am to sit and listen and learn.
I do want to tackle issues around special needs. I want to make sure we are an inclusive school system that celebrates the diversity within it. Also, the chronic bullying and racism a huge and horrible problem. I can’t believe that in 2019, we are still dealing with these issues. Hate has no place in our schools. No child deserves to be bullied, and hate speech and actions of hate, to me, are unacceptable under any circumstance and need to be eradicated from our schools.
We are learning about each other. Even though some of the [board] members served with the last group, when you change one member, the whole team changes. So now we have five new members and we’re learning about each other and how to best work together for the benefit of our teachers and students. I’m very much looking forward to making some amazing, positive changes for our students and our teachers going forward — just really thrilled to be working with the entire board.
Q: Is there anything else you want to add about your family life or role as a parent?
A: I have been a lifelong volunteer and advocate my entire adult life. Volunteering is something that feeds my soul. It’s something I feel called to do. So obviously I don’t do this for the sleepless nights and sometimes negative feedback I have received, but I do this because I love our community, I love all of our students, I really believe in our mission to elevate all students and eliminate all gaps, and I just want to do my best to accomplish that. We are new, so I ask for the community’s patience but I also welcome the feedback — good, bad, otherwise. My email is dschallheim@AACPS.org and my phone number is listed on the AACPS website if you click on “board” and “Meet the Board Members.” I am very responsive. I’m more than happy to email back and forth. I’m more than happy to talk on the phone. I’m more than happy to grab a cup of coffee and chat. I’m just want to be available to the community. It’s an honor to serve the community.