Another Kind of Financial Crisis: Junior Achievement Combats Shore Student Financial Illiteracy

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Little did Junior Achievement know when it started nearly one hundred years ago that the financial education organization would be as timely in 2018 as it was when founded in 1919. J.A., as it’s known to millions of students and volunteers, continues a tradition of engaging young people in the fundamental basics of work readiness, financial literacy, and entrepreneurship at a time when those skill sets are in extremely high demand.

It should be a relief to many on the Mid-Shore that the J.A. has played an educational leadership role in the school districts of Caroline, Dorchester and Talbot County for decades now, as close to 450 volunteers descend on Eastern Shore public schools each year to teach its students such essential life skills as opening a bank account, balancing a checkbook, applying for loans, the dangers of credit card debt,  the importance of savings, or understanding what stocks and bonds are.

With the internet and smartphones now allowing a new generation to simply push a button or scan a thumbprint to almost instantaneously bring anything to one’s door, children of all ages are faced with unprecedented consumer choices, dishonest lenders, and scam artists as they plot their way into adulthood.

Given this under the radar crisis, the Spy sat down with Jayme Hayes, Jim Malena, and Talli Oxnam, three local leaders of Junior Achievement, to catch up on these very real challenges facing the youth in our community and what J.A. is doing locally to address them.

This video is approximately three minutes in length. For more information on Junior Achievement on the Eastern Shore please go here.

Town to Fill Two Police Vacancies

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Police Chief Adrian Baker

The Chestertown Police Department is seeking to fill two vacancies, Chief Adrian Baker told the Mayor and Council at their Dec. 3 meeting.

Baker said that he had had two certified officers as candidates for the openings a couple of weeks ago, but then both accepted positions with other departments that were closer to their hometowns. He said he had other candidates, including two from the local area. However, they would need to earn certification, which would require sending them to the police academy. That would cost roughly $40,000 and it would be six months before they complete the course. The candidates would need to enroll in the academy by January 4, which would require their completing a series of tests and other initial requirements by that date. In addition, to cover the vacancies, current officers would need to work overtime. He said the town might still be able to find a certified candidate to fill the gap, but it was not certain.

Baker said he had called in a favor from a friend who has a business near the academy, and who would be willing to house the two candidates there while they complete the course. That would cut some $16,000 in housing expenses from the cost of sending them to the academy, he said, reducing the cost to the town to about $25,000.

Mayor Chris Cerino asked whether the candidates would be committed to working for the town after they graduate. The usual procedure is to give new academy graduates a three-year contract, after which they are free to explore other opportunities, Baker said. If they leave the town’s police force before that time, they are expected to repay the cost of sending them to the academy.

Councilman Marty Stetson, a former town police chief, said that in his experience the cost is never repaid.

“We have been able to collect in some cases,” said Baker. He said new hires usually don’t “jump” before their contract is up.

Cerino said that if the two vacancies remain unfilled until the new hires finish the academy, the town would not have to pay the salaries for the two open positions. He asked if that would balance out the cost of the academy.

“It’s not a wash,” said Baker. Current officers would need to be paid overtime to cover all the shifts, and there is greater stress for officers working extra shifts. He said the department would do whatever was necessary to ensure coverage, “including working some shifts myself.”

Councilman David Foster asked how many current officers the town had sent to the academy. Baker said about 1/3 were sent to the academy by Chestertown, with the rest being experienced officers hired from other jurisdictions.

Councilwoman Linda Kuiper asked if the expected proceeds from the sale of surplus town property might bring in enough to cover the academy cost.

Town Manager Bill Ingersoll said the proceeds would probably come close, but that the sales were still not final. He said he would look at the budget and see where the money could be found. Recruiting new officers locally and sending them to the academy was a good investment in the future, he said since they were more likely to stay in the community. He said the council needed to agree in principle to fund the candidates’ time in the academy. “We can’t wait two or three weeks,” he said, noting that scheduling tests and other appointments could be tricky during the holiday season.

The council agreed to cover the cost of sending two candidates to the academy.

Lauren Frick of Washington College’s Enactus tells the council about a project to install electric car chargers for a rideshare program

Also at the meeting, Lauren Frick of Washington College’s Enactus chapter gave a presentation on a proposal to install chargers for electric cars in town, using them to support a ride share program. Enactus, a student organization partnering with local business leaders, aims to use innovative approaches to empower the economically disadvantaged. One of its recent projects was “Soap with Hope,” the sale of handmade soaps, with the proceeds used to help residents of developing countries improve sanitation and start their own Frick said that a preliminary study suggested that the town’s third ward might be a good location since a large number of residents of that area appear not to own vehicles.

She asked if the council would provide a letter of support for the project.

Council members had several questions about the logistics of the proposal. Frick said that users could reserve a car by using an app on their phones. Greenspot would cover insurance on the rideshare vehicles. She said there would be no cost to the town if the stations are installed on public land.

Cerino said the town would still have the costs of maintaining the property and performing general repairs. He said the recently refurbished town-owned marina might be a good spot for terminals, which would allow boaters coming into town to drive to local stores for supplies.

Kuiper said that a local business in the third ward had just installed chargers at its own expense and that they might not appreciate competition from a nonprofit using town property.

Councilman Ellsworth Tolliver said he appreciated the proposal to put the stations in his ward, where it might help people gain economic independence. “I hope it will bring in some entrepreneurial opportunities,” he said.

Ingersoll said he liked the idea of locating the stations in the marina, where there would be staff on hand to keep an eye on the operation.

Foster said that rideshares are very widespread in Washington State, where his son lives. He said his son gave up owning a car because it cost less to use a rideshare when he needed one.

Stetson said that most people in rural areas like Kent County need cars because there is no public transportation.

The council agreed to provide a letter of support.

The council adopted a resolution extending a tax credit to businesses building in the enterprise zone at the north end of town. It would give graduated tax credits over a 10-year period. Ingersoll said the town had promised to extend the credits at the time it annexed the property now being developed as the KRM Chestertown Business Campus, and that it would realize “a windfall” in property taxes once the campus is completed.

Also at the meeting, Cerino read a proclamation designating Jan. 22, 2019, a National Day of Racial Healing.

The council will be judging the Christmas decoration contest over the next couple of week, with winners to be announced at the first meeting in January. Two residential winners in each ward will be chosen by the council members, with the mayor choosing two commercial winners from the business district.

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Council Updating Farmers Market Rules

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Chestertown Farmers Market

At the Chestertown Council meeting Monday, Nov. 19, Mayor Chris Cerino asked Town Manager Ingersoll, Councilwoman Linda Kuiper and town clerk Jen Mulligan to compile a final update of revisions to the farmers market rules. The council has been looking to update the rules since the death of Owen McCoy, the former market manager, early this year.

Kuiper, in her ward report, discussed some of the major changes she and Mulligan have made so far. The rules now say the market’s non-profit area is open to local community organizations, rather than non-profits as the old rules specified. There had been some concern whether 501(C)(3) status would be required, which would have posed a problem for several organizations that have been regular participants.

Also, the rules no longer require that vendors be “non-commercial,” after several people pointed out that most current vendors are for all practical purposes commercial entities.

At Ingersoll’s request, Kuiper said the rules would state that the market would be closed on Saturdays when it was snowing, to avoid the need for the town to shovel snow. If the market were open on snow days, there would be the danger of vendors or patrons being injured after slipping on snow or ice. Ingersoll said the rules would also eliminate the possibility of someone being injured by a car going out of control on the adjacent streets. “That’s not even something we can prevent,” he said.

Vendors from Kent, Queen Anne and Cecil counties would be allowed. Kuiper asked if there was a fine for cars parked in vendors’ spaces on Saturday. Ingersoll and Police Chief Adrian Baker confirmed that there is a fine.

Also, the town would like to spread vendors out toward the High Street side of the park, in part to reduce the pressure on the grass along Park Row, where some vendors set up. Kuiper asked whether the town should require vendors to move to that side of the park if they have an established site elsewhere. Cerino said “the path of least resistance” would be to give new vendors – there are several who are interested in taking part – sites along the High Street side. He said the town had widened the sidewalk on that side specifically in order to allow vendors there.

The council heard from a number of farmers market and artisans’ market vendors at the end of the summer when it first discussed changing the rules. Cerino said the town had received seven single-spaced pages of email comments on the proposed changes, and that it would make an effort to incorporate many of them. “It’s not going to happen unanimously; we’re going to make some people upset,” Cerino said. But he said it was time to get the new rules in place. “We’re just going to have to get a backbone and pass something,” he said.

The council will discuss and vote on the proposed changes after suggestions from vendors and other stakeholders have been incorporated in a draft and reviewed by market vendors.

Jamie Williams, Kent County Director of Economic Development

Also at the meeting, Jamie Williams, the Kent County economic development director, gave a report on her department’s activities. She said her plan was to update all the towns in the county twice a year, given that most of the economic activity takes place in the towns.

Williams described several initiatives her department has taken, including a business-to-business initiative on the departmental website, kentcounty.com/business, designed to help local businesses connect with each other and find services or commodities – she gave examples such as CPAs, banks, lawyers, real estate offices, day care centers and doctors — they can use in the immediate area. She said the department is open to suggestions for other listings local businesses – especially new ones – would benefit from. The website also lists incentives available to local businesses, whether from the state, the county, or municipalities, and the tax rates for the county and each of the municipalities. It includes a database of property available to be developed, with data such as availability of water and sewer.

Williams said she was working with the county Information Technology staff to promote the 13 wi-fi hotspots in the county all of which have free wireless internet that is available for students or others who can’t get internet access at home. “It helps level the playing field a little bit more for children who can’t afford it at home,” she said. A map on the county website shows all the locations. Also, the county is distributing stickers to businesses that provide free wi-fi on their premises.

Other ways to promote the county include a brochure on the public schools to be distributed to real estate agencies and two videos to be posted on social media and the county’s website. Also, callers to the county offices will hear promotional messages about the county if they are on hold.

Williams listed a number of new or upgraded businesses in the county, including the new Dixon Valve warehouse and headquarters, expansions at Lamotte Chemical, Creafill Fibers and Gillespie Concrete, plus a number of smaller businesses including several new restaurants. She noted that all of them are using local contractors, which benefits the county economy as a whole. She also addressed several business closings, noting that many of them are the result of national or regional factors rather than anything in the local climate. However, as a downside, she said that a few new businesses are having to delay openings because they’re having trouble finding contractors in the area who aren’t already committed to other projects.

Cerino asked if any businesses have come to the county as a result of the fiber optic project. Williams said that she doesn’t know of any that came for that specific reason, but there have been conversations with several companies that have shown interest in the availability of high-speed internet here. She said the county’s 2017 comprehensive plan identifies the kinds of companies that it hopes to attract with the high-speed internet, including data centers, call centers, graphic design companies, and telemedicine. Also, KRM Development is hoping that the availability of fiber optic internet will help attract businesses to its new business mall on the north end of Chestertown.

Paul Heckles, president of Main Street Chestertown, reviews the organizations’ goals and mission.

Paul Heckles, president of Main Street Chestertown, and Kay MacIntosh, the town’s economic development director, gave an update on the organization’s activities. Heckles began with an outline of the group’s mission and its connection to the national Main Street program. He said his “elevator pitch” when asked to describe the group’s purpose is, “We work to enhance the Chestertown experience.” That includes adding more businesses and activities to the downtown area, creating more inviting streetscapes and making downtown a vibrant residential community.

The group has been active for two years since MacIntosh restarted it, and is focused on supporting the economic vitality of the downtown area. Its four pillars of activity are promotion, economic vitality, design, and organization, each of which has a committee. Chestertown’s is one of 28 Main Street organizations in the state, 13 of which are in smaller towns around the bay. “We’ve stolen shamelessly from these organizations around the bay,” Heckles said. “Everybody’s really like-minded, with the community in mind.” He said that all the groups are after the same grant money, and Chestertown is after its fair share. Before the group became active, Chestertown was “leaving money on the table” by not having anyone to go after the available funding for local revitalization.

Lessons learned include the importance of authenticity, of partnering with other organizations such as the Downtown Chestertown Association and the Kent County Chamber of Commerce. An emphasis on walkability is another key to Main Street programs all over the country. Much of the work is done by volunteers, Heckles said.

MacIntosh gave a summary of the group’s activities, including representing the town at the Maryland Municipal League meeting and national Main Street conferences. She said board members pay their own way to these meetings, which are very valuable both for networking and for learning ways to improve the program.

Main Street’s first year of grant applications produced $53,000 in funding, of which $40,000 from the Maryland Department of Housing and Community Development was for facade improvements in the downtown area, $10,000 for strategic planning, and $3,385 from Keep Maryland Beautiful for planters and flowers for downtown streets, much of which went to fill a “dead zone” along High Street, particularly on a section of High Street where there is no active retail. She listed some of the buildings that benefited from the facade grant, including Play it Again Sam’s and the building at the corner of Spring and Park Row. The building currently housing Casinelli’s distillery is scheduled for a significant upgrade in months to come.

Chestertown mayor Chris Cerino dons his Dickens Weekend hat. – Photo by Peter Heck

MacIntosh said that Main Street has gotten $100,000 in grants in its second year of applications. It will be used, in part, to create signage in the downtown area “to indicate where all our assets are.” $50,000 is available for facade improvements. Also, MacIntosh said, she received some funding to hire an assistant manager for the program, which will be a part-time position at first. Main Street also applied for and received community tax credits which will allow it to do more high-powered fundraising. Donors to the program will be allowed to deduct 50% of their donations from their state income tax.

Main Street’s other programs over its first two years include the informational map on the Cross Street side of the Bordley building, a calendar of events distributed at the Visitor Center, a social media presence in the Chestertown Life bulletin board and FaceBook page, working with Washington College to get “college swag” into downtown shops, and its two “high-profile” events, the Dickens Christmas festival and the “cars on High” gathering in summer months. MacIntosh gave a preview of attractions scheduled for the Dickens weekend Dec. 7-9, during which Cerino donned a top hat he will be wearing during the festival. Most of the entertainment is free, she said.

Conversations about bringing a boutique hotel to the downtown area, suggested by many as a way to bring in more visitors, are ongoing, MacIntosh said. Main Street is also exploring ideas including a performance venue for the downtown area, a waterfront walking path, public art at gateways, and burying electric wires in the downtown area.

All photos by Peter Heck.

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Council Approves Zoning Change, Real Estate Sale

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Mayor Chris Cerino, Town Manager Bill Ingersoll, Councilwoman Linda Kuiper, and Councilman David Foster

At the Chestertown Council meeting Monday, Nov. 19, the mayor and council approved a change in the town’s zoning ordinance as it applies to the recently annexed properties in the Dixon Valve business park being developed at the north end of town.

In a public hearing on the new zoning, before the regular council meeting, Town Manager Bill Ingersoll summarized the ordinance. He said that when the tract was annexed, the owners requested, and the town agreed to provide, a “mixed-use” zoning. That would be equivalent to the “crossroads commercial” designation the property had when it was still under Kent County jurisdiction. He said the town’s solution was to meld the LI2 “light industrial” zoning with C3 zoning, a “neighborhood commercial” designation the town developed in 2010.

Ingersoll said the changes to the ordinance had been vetted by the town planning commission and by the property owner and both were satisfied it would accomplish what they wanted for the tract. The new zoning allows the planning commission a degree of flexibility in determining appropriate setbacks for buildings. Convenience stores and drive-through businesses and ground floor residential uses would not be allowed in the industrial area of the property.

The ordinance also increases the permitted size of signs in the new zone, to 20 square feet from the 4 square foot standard in the downtown business area where residential and business uses are very close to one another. Ingersoll said the adjustment is in recognition that the setbacks in the business park may enough greater that the larger size is necessary for signs to be legible from the street.

Ingersoll said the model for mixed use is the traditional neighborhood where residences, churches, and neighborhood stores were mingled, as they were in historic eras. The owners would be allowed to have a gymnasium, smaller stores, restaurants, and other businesses catering to residents or employees in the Dixon Valve offices and warehouse nearby. “It allows a variety of uses in an intimate setting,” he said in summary of the “mixed-use” designation.

Councilman Marty Stetson said that the zoning essentially was what the developers had presented when they requested annexation of the property.

Jim Gatto, the former chairman of the planning commission, spoke from the audience. He asked whether the entire area would be zoned for mixed-use or if a portion along Scheeler Road to the south, which KRM has said it would use for an apartment complex, would have a separate zoning. Ingersoll said it would be two zones: one designated “professional office” where the apartments will be, and the other more business-oriented. He said the “professional office” zone allows a significant residential element.

Gatto told the council that the town has needed a mixed-use zone for some time, describing it as “the way for the community to go.” He gave council members a draft revision to the zoning ordinance he had worked out when he was on the commission that spelled out some of the details of a mixed-use zone. He said among the characteristics he such a zone should include were walkability and conservation of open space. He suggested eliminating a requirement for specific lot sizes in favor of laying out percentages to be devoted to various uses. He spoke in favor of giving the developer added flexibility along with “incentives to invest in the site rather than just develop it.”

Ingersoll thanked Gatto for his expert commentary and said that his proposed changes should be looked at by the planning commission when it reviews the comprehensive plan and the zoning ordinance, as required by state law, in a couple of years’ time.

The council passed the ordinance, 06-2018, which amends the town’s zoning ordinance, by unanimous vote.

Also at the meeting, the council adopted an ordinance, 05-2018 authorizing the sale of two pieces of property that it declared surplus. One, at 328 Cannon Street, is 10×100 feet – an abandoned entrance to the town parking lot that sits behind the commercial buildings on the street. It is surrounded by a single neighbor and is too narrow to be buildable. The neighbor has offered to buy it for $5,000.

The other plot, 103 Flatland Road, is just over 1/2 acre at the corner of Flatland Road and High Street extended. Ingersoll said the town acquired it some time ago with the plan of converting it into a basketball court. However, with the completion of the nearby Gateway Park, there is no need for an additional court in the area. Ingersoll said at the Nov. 5 council meeting that the owners of the adjacent properties have indicated their interest in buying the lot, which crosses their access to Flatland Road.

Mayor Chris Cerino swears in new town police officer Stacey Shockley. Her husband, Deputy Collin Shockley of the Kent County Sheriff’s Office, holds the Bible

Police Chief Adrian Baker, following his monthly departmental report, introduced Stacey Shockley, the department’s newest officer. He said she is a Kent County High School graduate who attended Salisbury University, graduating with a degree in psychology. For the past five years, she has been serving as a member of the university’s campus police. Her husband Collin Shockley, a deputy with the Kent County Sheriff’s Office, held the Bible during the swearing-in by Mayor Chris Cerino.

Baker said that the department still has one opening to fill. He said there are a couple of candidates under consideration for the position.

Final Ballot Count in Kent Leaves Results Unchanged

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Voting booths at Kent County library during this year’s election – Photo by Peter Heck

The results from Election Day, Nov. 6 have been completed with the final counts of absentee and provisional ballots. Three contested races were close enough that absentees could have changed the order of finish. But after all votes were tallied for the County Commissioners, the Judge of Orphans’ Court and the Board of Education, the trailing candidates did not receive enough votes to overtake the leaders.

Republicans Tom Mason and Bob Jacob — both first-time candidates — and Democratic incumbent Ron Fithian are the winners in the County Commissioners’ contest. The three Democrats on the ballot all gained votes on their Republican rivals in the absentee count, but the only effect on the winners was to move Fithian into second place behind Jacob. Incumbents William Pickrum and Billy Short, along with challenger Tom Timberman, were defeated. The contest was close, with only 149 votes separating third and fourth places. The commissioners will be sworn in in January, and will serve four-year terms.

In the Board of Education contest, incumbents Trish McGee and Wendy Costa were joined by newcomer Nivek Johnson for the three seats to be filled. Francoise Sullivan, a member of the Support Our Schools group, was in fourth place after all votes were counted, trailing Johnson by 116 votes. McGee, who is incumbent president, easily won re-election, more than 2,000 votes ahead of the other candidates. Board members serve four-year terms. There are five positions, three of which were to be filled this year. The other two board members will face re-election in 2020.

In the Orphans’ Court election, Democrat Elroy G. Boyer Jr. and Republicans Amy Nickerson and Betty Carroll were elected to the three seats. Democratic challenger Allan Schauber came in fourth, less than 100 votes short of third place.

The only other contested Kent County race had Democrat Bryan DiGregory elected States Attorney over Republican Robert Strong, gaining nearly 60% of the vote. DiGregory is currently the Deputy States Attorney, while Strong held the post for 16 years before making an unsuccessful run to unseat Clerk of the Circuit Court Mark Mumford four years ago.

Other local offices were uncontested. Sheriff John Price, Clerk of Circuit Court Mark Mumford and Register of Wills Kristi Osborne were all elected by wide margins over write-in opposition. And three judges — Harris Murphy, Donald Beachley and Matthew Fader — received solid endorsements from the voters for continuance in office.

On the rest of the ballot, Kent voted to return incumbents to state and federal offices, regardless of party. Governor Larry Hogan, a Republican, and U.S. Senator Ben Cardin, Comptroller of Maryland Peter Franchot and States Attorney Brian Frosh, all Democrats, won in Kent as well as state-wide. Kent was the only Eastern Shore county to back Frosh, and one of only two to back Cardin, although both ran up wide enough margins to win easily state-wide.

In the First District Congressional contest, Kent was one of only two counties — Talbot was the other — won by Democrat Jesse Colvin in his bid to unseat Republican incumbent Andrew Harris, who scored 60% of the vote district-wide. Colvin, who campaigned heavily in Kent, won 54% of the vote here.

The delegation to the General Assembly in Annapolis was returned with comfortable margins both in Kent and district-wide. State Senator Steve Hershey and Delegates Jay Jacobs, Jeff Ghrist and Steve Arentz, all Republicans, will return to Annapolis to represent District 36, which includes Kent, Caroline, Queen Anne’s and part of Cecil counties.

Looking at the big picture, Kent showed more evidence of the national “blue wave” than other Shore counties, though Republicans picked up a seat on the County Commission and held their own in the General Assembly offices. And with a couple of exceptions, incumbents did very well in the county. Interestingly, the totals from Early Voting and absentee ballots tended to favor Democrats, while Republicans did much better on Election Day.

Results from Kent County Board of Elections website

 

For full results, visit the Board of Elections website.

 

 

The Chestertown Marina: Mayor Cerino Sees the Finish Line of the Long, Hard Slog

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It is almost too painful to recall the many twists and turns of the Chestertown Marina project since the town purchased the property in 2012.  The setbacks, the economic recession, the second-guessing, the mixed signals from Annapolis, and the inevitable last minute surprises over the last six years would give anyone a serious about heartburn. And no one could possibly feel more of that indigestion issue that Chestertown’s mayor, Chris Cerino.

Even before the town took the unprecedented step to purchase the marina, Cerino had been tracking it. Heading up the town’s Planning and Zoning Commission, as well as serving as the Sultana Education Foundation’s director of education, Chris was well aware of its opportunities and challenges well before he decided to make the marina his number one priority when he ran for mayor in 2014.

And for the last four years, he’s seen first hand how complex and frustrating a project like this can be for a small town. But it has also allowed him to join other leaders in town for a modest victory lap as the real fruit of their labor is now being very tangibly being seen on Chester River waterfront.

The Spy talked to Mayor Cerino last week in the new Marina Interpretive Center to talk about this long journey and the almost unlimited potential it has released as this three hundred year old community reclaims in historic ties to river and offered a future door for economic development.

This video is approximately eight minutes in length. For more information about the Chestertown Marina or to make a contribution to its final phase of funding, please go here

 

Social Action Committee Interviews: Kent County School Board Candidates

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School board candidate Nivek Johnson with interviewers Charles Taylor, Arlene Lee, and Airlee Johnson

The Kent County Social Action Committee conducted interviews of candidates for three local offices that are up for election this November. The interviews were conducted over three days in October. 

Running for Board of Education seats are incumbents Wendy Costa and Trish McGee and new candidates Nivek Johnson and Francoise Sullivan. There are three seats to be filled. Election to the board is non-partisan, and the ballot does not list the candidates’ party affiliation.

The first question for Board of Education candidates noted that the schools had experienced “very serious violence and racism” during the previous school year. It asked candidates how, if elected, they would create a Kent County Public School system that is “fair, equitable and effective for all students, including students of color.

Nivek Johnson, the first to be interviewed, said that a lot of school systems are facing similar problems. He said he would encourage the County Superintendent to look into restorative justice, an approach that encourages students to resolve conflicts on their own, by bringing them together in small peer groups to talk, ask questions and air grievances. Also, he said, a round table discussion about issues of racism and violence would allow teachers to bring problems to a fair resolution without resorting to punishment. He said he had experienced the positive effects of restorative justice while teaching at St. Peter and Paul’s in Easton.

Francoise Sullivan said that many of the “ugly events” last year were the result of the board’s decision to bring in an outside contractor for school buses. She said she favored starting to talk about racism at an early age, pointing to the Students Talking About Racism (STAR) program at the middle school. She said her own daughter, an elementary school student in the county, had been told by classmates she should only play with “others like her” – “I was appalled,” Sullivan said. 

School board candidate Francoise Sullivan with interviewers Charles Taylor and Arlene Lee

Trish McGee, currently President of the Board of Education, said the board doesn’t have the power a lot of people think it does. The Superintendent and staff make the day-to-day decisions. She endorsed the steps taken last year, including a multicultural committee at Kent County Middle School. “It’s important to communicate and give value to everyone’s story,” she said.

Wendy Costa also endorsed restorative justice. She said it should be used throughout society, beginning in the schools. Also, she said, students need to visit institutions such as the Smithsonian African American Museum in Washington. Seeing different perspectives and having diverse friends can do a lot to defuse racial problems, as well, she said. Black History month should expand its material beyond the accomplishments of Martin Luther King. And students need to read more, especially reading books in common so they share more experiences with one another – she suggested the biography of Frederick Douglass and “The Color of Water” as books that would give students a wider understanding.

The candidates were asked whether they were willing to take part in a workshop on racism and whether they would require school system staff to do so. Johnson, Sullivan, and McGee said they would participate; Johnson described himself as “a huge advocate” for the training and encouraged the superintendent to pursue the idea for staff. Sullivan said it should be done for all staff and teachers, and McGee she would “encourage it in the strongest way” for board members and top staff. It would also be beneficial for students, she said, commending the STAR student group for taking on the issues of racism. “I need to do this for myself,” she said.

Kent County school board President Trish McGee

Costa said she was unfamiliar with the workshop, but that the schools “should do this kind of thing.” She said she had done similar things in other districts she had been involved with, including attending Challenge Day at the schools every year.

Candidates were also asked about ways to improve recruiting of minority teachers and administrators in the county. Johnson noted that Kent County has “a unique makeup” – its small size means that people outside the area aren’t familiar with it. He said that recruiting more teachers of color was something he had always advocated. He suggested sending retired teachers and other stakeholders to colleges outside the area to show how much the county has to offer. He also said that many black students don’t see the benefits of a teaching career, and need to be shown. He said he would work with the county commissioners on economic development as a way to make the county more attractive to new teachers.

Sullivan said there is a nationwide teacher shortage, and that the county should broaden its outreach to historically black colleges. She said that inviting candidates to visit the county, with residents hosting them in their homes – as the National Music Festival does with its performers – would be a promising approach. “We need to set a percentage of what diversity should look like,” she said, adding that the percentage should be increased every five years. Also, she said, it is important to convert new hires into teachers who stay here instead of leaving for jobs elsewhere. She suggested that the county schools partner with Washington College to become a “teacher factory” for the rest of the state.

McGee said the failure to attract teachers of color has been an issue for a long time. She said the county had hired 25 teachers for the current school year, two of whom were black and two Hispanic. She said she had spoken to Superintendent Karen Couch about it on a number of occasions, but the job of recruitment really depends on the human resources staff. “There were more teachers of color when I was in high school,” she said, noting that it’s important for students to have diverse role models. She said, “We need to go beyond the schools” to involve people from the business community and other local stakeholders in the recruitment process. “Kent County is a hard egg to crack for a new person coming in,” she said, and the retention rate of first- and second-year teachers is “not very good.” She also noted that expecting Washington College to fill the teacher shortage might not be realistic – “there were very few people of color when I was there,” she said – and added that teachers hired from the college don’t tend to stay any longer than those hired from other areas.

School board member Wendy Costa and interviewer Ned Southworth

Costa also commented on the national teacher shortage. She said Kent County gets a lot of its teachers from Pennsylvania and Delaware. She said attracting more teachers, including teachers of color, is a question of making the system competitive with others, especially in terms of salaries. Teachers have traditionally not been treated like professionals, she said, giving the example of expecting them to perform lunch and bus duty – jobs that could be done by volunteers or non-teaching staff. If teaching were a more attractive profession in general, more people of color would be involved. As far as partnering with Washington College, it would be “great, but it’s not going to solve the problem.”

The candidates were also asked about ways to involve more students in after-school activities when parents or caregivers are unable to provide transportation to those activities because of work schedules or lack of a car. “I’m a proponent of after-school activities,” said Johnson. He said the board needs to put pressure on the county commissioners to provide more funding for schools. Also, he said, the board needs to look at its own budget to find money for after-school buses. He would work with the school district’s financial department to find funding. “It can be done and it should be done,” he said.

“It’s an issue for a lot of parents,” Sullivan said. “We need to address it on a big scale.” She noted that many families need both parents to work and that it’s the school district’s responsibility to make opportunities available to all its students.

McGee said that after-school transportation was one of the casualties of the schools’ recent budget crunch. While there used to be late buses, there haven’t been any for “a long time,” she said. Given the comparatively high levels of poverty in the county, most families need both parents to work, and they can’t get back to school to bring their children home. Transportation is “a county-wide issue,“ not just a problem with the schools, she said, and there’s no money to make it work.

To Costa, the lack of transportation is one of the biggest problems. One issue is the fact that school hours are “divorced from” parents’ work schedules. “That’s got to change,” she said, with school hours more congruent with work hours. She said the transportation issues also affect academic work, making it difficult for the schools to provide activities such as debate teams or math and science clubs.

School board candidates were also asked whether they would take and encourage teachers and administrators how they would support an expanded volunteer system in the schools; and what are ways for the schools to become innovative while still working within the state’s requirements, such as physical education, recess, and relevant local content such as African American history and culture.

Interviewers included SAC members Paul Tue, Charles Taylor, Airlee Johnson, Sherrie Tilghman, Ned Southworth, Arlene Lee, and Mel Rappelyea.

The interview questions were compiled based on issues raised at a joint meeting of the Social Action Committee and the Kent County branch of the NAACP. “Our questions posed to the candidates were based on the survey of many people at a joint meeting of the NAACP-Kent Branch and the Social Action Committee in May 2018. The members of both groups identified their primary concerns, needs, and passions regarding the quality of life and justice issues currently in Kent County. The Political Action Subcommittee of the SAC then took those responses and formulated the questions posed to the candidates, specific to each of the offices represented.

The final questions – between 9 and 11 per candidate, depending on the office – were drafted by the SAC’s political committee. As might be expected from the groups creating the questions, a number of them focused on racial issues affecting the local community. 

Each candidate was asked the same questions as others for the same office, in separate one-hour sessions. They did not see the questions until they arrived for the interview, at which point they were given a few minutes to look them over. Occasionally the interviewers would ask follow-up questions or request clarification, but in general, the candidates were allowed to take their answers in whatever direction they wanted. As a result, not all candidates gave equally long answers to all the questions.

The Social Action Committee consists of about 100 community members of all ages, who came together in 2017 to address racism in the community. The SAC is comprised of a number of subcommittees, each with a specific focus to actively dismantle racism in the community in areas such as education, jobs/employment, politics, and community social events/observances. The committee meets at Sumner Hall at 6 p.m. on the third Thursday of each month. All community members are welcome. For more information, contact Rosemary Ramsey Granillo, Director of the Local Management Board:  Office:  410-810-2673; email:  rramseygranillo@kentgov.org.

Social Action Committee Interviews: Kent County Commission Candidates

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Tom Timberman, candidate for Kent County Commission, is interviewed by members of the Social Action Committee. From left: Tilera Wright; Timberman; Paul Tue; Arlene Lee; Airlee Johnson

The Kent County Social Action Committee conducted interviews of candidates for three local offices that are up for election this November. The interviews were conducted over three days early in October. The first two four-hour sessions were held at Sumner Hall, while the final group of candidates was interviewed on the second floor of Chestertown Town Hall. No audience was present for the sessions; only members of the Social Action Committee and representatives of the press were in the room. 

The interview questions were compiled based on issues raised at a joint meeting of the Social Action Committee and the Kent County branch of the NAACP. “Our questions posed to the candidates were based on the survey of many people at a joint meeting of the NAACP-Kent Branch and the Social Action Committee in May 2018. The members of both groups identified their primary concerns, needs, and passions regarding the quality of life and justice issues currently in Kent County. The Political Action Subcommittee of the SAC then took those responses and formulated the questions posed to the candidates, specific to each of the offices represented (i.e., the Board of Commissioners, the Board of Education, the State’s Attorney’s Office).

The final questions – between 9 and 11 per candidate, depending on the office – were drafted by the SAC’s political committee. As might be expected from the groups creating the questions, a number of them focused on racial issues affecting the local community. 

The candidates for County Commissioner include the three incumbents – Democrats William Pickrum and Ron Fithian and Republican Billy Short – along with Democrat Tom Timberman and Republicans Tom Mason and Bob Jacob. There are three seats to be filled, and the three candidates receiving the highest vote totals will be elected.

Each candidate was asked the same questions as others for the same office, in separate one-hour sessions. They did not see the questions until they arrived for the interview, at which point they were given a few minutes to look them over. Occasionally the interviewers would ask follow-up questions or request clarification, but in general, the candidates were allowed to take their answers in whatever direction they wanted. As a result, not all candidates gave equally long answers to all the questions.

Candidates for County Commissioner were asked nine questions, beginning with “Please describe how you see racism in Kent County,” and “What will you do to lead Kent County in the dismantling of the current barriers experienced by people of color in this County?”

Timberman, who was the first to be interviewed, said he was stunned to see physical segregation in Kent County. “It’s the worst I’ve seen in the United States,” he said. He said there is discrimination in employment and in the public schools and a lack of affordable housing in the towns. “The economy is the key to everything,” he said, citing a “Kent 2025 Strategic Plan” he has crafted as part of his campaign. The county will “collapse” unless it can bring in more businesses and residents to provide more tax revenue to county government. He said a “21st Century technical training center” could be a key step toward developing job skills for a modern economy.

Tom Mason (left), answers questions from Charles Taylor, Arlene Lee and Airlee Johnson of the Social Action Committee

Mason, who also interviewed on the first day, said there seems to be “a division between people,” and that they “don’t seem to want to mix.” “It’s always seemed to be that way,” he said, noting that he had attended a meeting of the county commissioners where State Highway Administration officials delivered their annual report and saw no African Americans there. He said that African American leaders “need to step up and involve people in programs.” He said he grew up in Cecil County, where he said segregation and racial divisions “weren’t an issue. I never experienced it.” “Some of my best friends are black,” he said. He said that the commissioners need to be open to community leaders and do whatever is needed to remove barriers. “But it has to be both ways – it’s hard to involve people if they don’t show up,” he said.

Kent County Commissioner William Pickrum (left) answers questions from SAC members Ned Southworth and Sherrie Tilghman

Pickrum, who was born in Kent County and graduated from then-segregated Garnet High School, said he was “very familiar with discrimination and racism.” He noted that when he moved back to the county some 25 years ago, after a career in the U.S. Coast Guard and in aviation, he attended a county economic development meeting where he was the only black person present and was asked: “Who are you and why are you here?” “Irritated” by that question, Pickrum said, he got involved in politics. He said there is a “lack of welcome” still prevalent today, more among natives of the county than in recent arrivals. “I don’t see anyone like me,” he said, when he visits stores and banks in Chestertown. He said that lack of welcome is the reason many black people don’t take part in community events. For his part, Pickrum said, during his time on the commission, the county hired its first black department heads and its first female department heads, plus its first two female county administrators. He said he had worked to find people of color for county boards and commissions. The fight against discrimination is an on-going process, he said.

County Commissioner Ron Fithian answers a question as SAC member Airlee Johnson listens

Fithian said that when he grew up in Rock Hall, there was plenty of work for everyone, with many people of color working as watermen. “We worked together and played together,” he said. “Some of my best friends are African-American.” He went on to describe his relationship with various individuals over the years. “Sure, racism exists,” he said. “But it doesn’t with me; I do what I can to deal with it,” treating others the way they treat him. Fithian noted that several important department heads at the county are people of color, including the warden of the county detention center, Herbert Dennis, and Myra Butler, director of Parks and Recreation, and other employees “throughout our system.” He added that he had fired one county employee for being disrespectful to African Americans. “Racism is around because people don’t understand one another,” he said.

Candidate Bob Jacob with SAC interviewers Mel Rapelyea and Arlene Lee

Jacob, another Rock Hall native, told of playing baseball and other sports on the same teams as African Americans. “Race didn’t matter,” he said. “We went to school together, we rode together to games. We never thought about race.” He said he had heard about job discrimination in the county, but not what specific jobs were affected by it. He said it should be “a priority” to end discrimination – “We should be past this. This is 2018. It blows my mind that people are still like that. It’s all about getting the job done,” he said.

Billy Short, who has been a commissioner for six years, described himself as “one of the naïve ones” about racial issues. He said he was born and raised in the Big Woods area, where many of his neighbors were African Americans. “I don’t stereotype people or judge them by their color,” he said. He said he does hear people “being nasty,” which he described as an unfortunate part of “the culture we live in now.” He said that many of the barriers black residents face are “in the private sector.” He said there are plenty of job openings in the county, with more people coming into the county to work than commuting outside the county for jobs. “I don’t know how to force people to work,” he said.

Commissioner Billy Short and SAC interviewer Arlene Lee

All the candidates were asked whether they would agree to complete racism-awareness training or attend an Undoing Racism workshop during their first year in office and whether they would ensure that their staff would take such training. All agreed that they would take such training and that they would request that their staff do so. Timberman said he was surprised that county staff had not already been asked to take such training, and added that sexual harassment training should also be required. He said such training would be one of his highest priorities. Mason said he would hope that county staff had already had training on racism – “If not, why not?” Short said the county’s personnel department had already conducted some workshops for staff. Pickrum said he had received such training while in the U.S. Coast Guard. He said such training is an ongoing process with county staff, though he added that it was “not as robust as I’d like.”

On a question about what initiatives they would take in their first 120 days in office to increase the number of jobs in the county, the incumbents naturally had a different perspective than their challengers. Pickrum pointed out that local government does not create jobs. It can “level the playing fields and facilitate the process,” he said. He noted that the county has built infrastructure, such as the fiber-optic cable it has financed, and made an effort to see that its students are trained for the “jobs of tomorrow.” He also pointed to the “Hot Desks” facility created partly by the county economic development office as a way to make opportunities for entrepreneurs within the county.

It’s tough to bring in jobs,” said Fithian. He said that students graduating from high school – including his own daughter – often find it necessary to leave the county to find suitable work. He said he hoped the fiber-optic installation would bring in some jobs. He said the county’s successful efforts to retain Dixon Valve would be rewarded by new employment opportunities, and suggested that the newly upgraded Route 301 corridor, which the county has designated as a growth area, would lure new employers, especially around Millington.

Jobs are here if people want to work,” said Short, pointing to Dixon Valve, which he said will bring in 400 to 700 jobs in its expanded facilities. The new Chesapeake 5 movie theater, to which the commissioners extended a $75,000 loan, will bring in 15 to 20 jobs. And the Route 310 corridor could be expected to bring in jobs with its improved access to the Middletown Delaware area. He ranked the fiber-optic installation as the best thing the current commissioners had done for the economy, with the retention of Dixon Valve second best.

Mason said he would direct the county’s economic development office to spread the message that “Kent County is open for business.” He said the developers of Dollar General stores told him that Kent County was one of the worst places to build, that they had to “fight, fight, fight” to get anything approved. He pointed to the Route 301 corridor as “a golden opportunity,” and that the county should do anything possible to start development there. He said Queen Anne’s County is already working to exploit the potential, with the attitude in Queen Anne that “Kent won’t do anything.” He also said current businesses should be encouraged to expand. He pointed out that every new chicken house built by a farmer would increase the county’s property tax base.

Timberman said the county should develop a strategic plan including the five incorporated towns, with local businesses’ input. He said the county also needs to focus on the needs of seniors, with residents over 60 years old constituting 38 percent of the population. Identifying what they need could be a key to areas of economic expansion, with areas such as health care, housing, and physical training as opportunities. He would also move funding from the tourism office to economic development – they’re not separate operations, he said. While he would start these efforts in the first 120 days, realistically speaking they would take years to complete, he said.

Jacob said he would talk about the school board budget earlier in the year and launch a study of why the county’s revenues and population are not increasing. He said the county needs to find out why the schools lost 61 students since last year. “We need people here to increase revenues,” he said. The county “can’t just live off Dixon Valve and Lamotte,” he said. “You need people to live here – you can’t tax commuters.” He said that many of the county’s vacant houses could be rental properties for vacationers.

Other questions for County Commission candidates focused on ways to bridge the achievement gap between students of color and white students in the county schools; ways to use public/private partnerships to provide public transportation and affordable housing in the county; and ways to encourage local employers to develop workforces comprised of local residents.

Interviewers included SAC members Paul Tue, Charles Taylor, Airlee Johnson, Sherrie Tilghman, Ned Southworth, Arlene Lee, and Mel Rappelyea.

The spy will report on interviews with the candidates for States Attorney and for the county Board of Education in upcoming articles. 

The Social Action Committee consists of about 100 community members of all ages, who came together in 2017 to address racism in the community. The SAC is comprised of a number of subcommittees, each with a specific focus to actively dismantle racism in the community in areas such as education, jobs/employment, politics, and community social events/observances. The committee meets at Sumner Hall at 6 p.m. on the third Thursday of each month. All community members are welcome. For more information, contact Rosemary Ramsey Granillo, Director of the Local Management Board:  Office:  410-810-2673; email:  rramseygranillo@kentgov.org.

Early Voting Underway; Runs Through Thursday, Nov. 1

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A forest of signs at the entrance to the parking lot outside the Kent County Library in Chestertown – site for Early Voting – Photo by Peter Heck

Early voting opened in Maryland on Thursday, Oct. 25.  Right from the first hour, polling booths across Maryland had long lines and high turnouts.  State officials reported that 170,00 Marylanders voted in the first two days, Thursday and Friday, Oct 25 & 26. This was more than double for the first day of early voting in fall 2014, the last mid-term election.

On hand to keep everything running smoothly – (L-R) Director of Elections Cheemoandia Blake, Elections Board Vice President, Lisa Thompson, County Tech Tameka Johnson – Photo by Jane Jewell

Thursday, Nov 1, is the last day for registering and voting.  You can register and vote right at the same time.  Remember that 18-year-olds may also register and vote for their first national and state elections.  17-year-olds who will turn 18 before Nov 6, may also register and vote during the early voting period. On election day, Tuesday, Nov 1, only those voters who are already registered may vote.

In Kent County, a steady stream of voters showed up at the Kent County Library’s Chestertown branch, the only early voting site in the county.

At some points, lines of voters stretched from the door of the library’s meeting room to the middle of the library’s main room, almost to the circulation desk. According to Cheemoandia Blake, the county’s director of elections, 216 voters had cast ballots as of 1:20 on Thursday – one of them a provisional ballot.  Voting went smoothly with the line moving quickly.

Of these 216 voters in the first three hours of the first day of early voting, about 52 percent were registered Democrats, about 35 percent Republicans and 11 percent unaffiliated. Two voters cast provisional ballots. Two voters—both unaffiliated — also took advantage of the opportunity to register to vote during early voting. Officials said they expected more people to register and vote during the remainder of the early voting period.

Waiting to vote! (Among others are Sam Scalzo, Sydney , Susan Percival, Bron Percival, Mabel Mumford, and Court Clerk incumbent and candidate Mark Mumford on right in hat.) – Photo by Jane Jewell

The library will be open for early voting every day through Nov. 1, from 10 a.m. to 8 p.m., including Saturday and Sunday. Blake said Sunday is traditionally the quietest day during early voting. Last election in 2016, only 9 votes were cast in the county on Sunday.  This year, over 200 people voted on Sunday.  By 5:00 pm Monday, Oct. 29, approximately 14% of all the registered voters in Kent County, that’s 1,796 people, had cast their votes.

As of the end of September 2018, there were a little over 13,000 registered voters in Kent County.  Of these, just over  6,000 are Democrats and about 4, 800 are Republicans.  In addition, a little over 2,000 Kent Countians registered as Unaffiliated.  About 200 others are registered as Green Party, Libertarians, or Other.  The exact totals are in the chart below.  These numbers do not include those registered during October and Early Voting days.

Voters are asked to give their name, address and the month and day of their birthday to poll workers who then check registration and hand out the ballots. – Photo by Jane Jewell

Several candidates for office were seen among those voting – including Delegate Jay Jacobs, Commissioner Billy Short, and Clerk of the Court Mark Mumford. Jacobs said he had been tracking other counties in the 36th District, which he represents in the General Assembly, and that voting was heavy in all of them. He said he had observed a lot of enthusiasm among voters while campaigning.

The ballot this year is a long one, filling both sides of the sheet. Offices being contested are Governor of Maryland, state Senator, and Delegates to the General Assembly, U.S. Senate and House of Representatives, and county offices including county commissioner, State’s Attorney, Sheriff, Clerk of the Court, and members of the Board of Education. There are also two constitutional amendments on the ballot, one requiring funds raised by gambling to be used solely for education and the other allowing new voters to register on Election Day. Marylanders can now register and vote during the Early Voting period but can’t register on Election Day itself.

Jay Jacobs, candidate and current incumbent for District 36 of the Maryland General Assembly, and his wife Dawn Jacobs hold up the League of Women Voters Guide – Photo by Jane Jewell

Individual paper ballot voting booths. – Photo by Peter Heck

Maryland has both electronic voting and paper ballots – voters’ choice. For early voting, there are seven paper ballot booths plus one electronic voting booth.

The paper ballots are fed into an optical scanner which digitally records the votes on a computer.  Sometimes the scanner can’t read a ballot and the ballot is rejected.  One of the poll workers told us that this had happened two times Thursday morning and it happened again while we were there.  An election judge checks to see what caused the problem.  The problem is usually easily spotted and corrected.  The “box”–it’s actually an “oval”–is generally not correctly or completely filled in. If necessary, the voter completes and scans another ballot.  Rejected ballots are securely set aside as the number of ballots received by the polling booth must match the number of ballots cast plus the number of unused ballots.

Elections Chief Judge Larry Wilson – Photo by Jane Jewell

An important tip to avoid having the scanner reject your ballot is to completely darken the oblong shape next to the candidate’s name.  But do not go over the line and mark the space outside the magic oval!  Poll workers said that the scanner also tends to reject ballots where the voter has put a check or an X in the oval instead of filling it in.  This scanner system works much the same as many of the standard school tests where you also need to carefully completely fill in the space.  Yes, we have to color carefully on our ballots. What we learned in kindergarten is still relevant.

After scanning,  the paper ballot goes into a secured box with all the other original paper ballots to serve as a check and a paper audit trail.

Bob Ingersoll has voted! He’s smiling because he filled in the “ovals” correctly and the scanner has accepted his ballot.

Sample ballots are available at the library, along with a League of Women Voters’ guide to candidates.

  Kent County Voter Statistics – from Maryland State Board of Elections Website  Page with Registrations by County as of Sept is here.

  •     13,139 Registered Voters as of Sept 30, 2018
    •     6,009 Democrats
    •     4,802 Republicans
    •     2,094 Unaffiliated (often referred to as “Independent”)
    •     30 Green Party
    •     80 Libertarian Party
    •     102 Other

This article will be updated with more Early Voting information as available.

See you at the polls!