CECIL COUNTY — After one candidate withdrew from the race to represent District 1 on the Cecil County Board of Education, the field has narrowed to two candidates vying for the school board seat.
Dianne Racine Heath, of Warwick, and Sam Davis, of Earleville, will be competing to earn community members’ votes in the race for the District 1 school board seat, which represents the Elkton area south of U.S. Route 40 and all of the southern county.
Elkton resident Gary Burkhardt filed his candidacy Jan. 21, three days before the election filing deadline, but he withdrew his name from consideration shortly thereafter on Jan. 30. Burkhardt, a retired Cecil County Public Schools electronics technician, told the Cecil Whig that his change of heart came after feeling his ideas for improving school safety and security had not been heard while he was a CCPS employee.
“I just had a feeling I was wasting my time with the school system from working for them. I had given them safety and security ideas that they haven’t followed up on,” Burkhardt said. For example, he believes Perryville High School’s fire alarm system is “obsolete” and in need of replacement.
However, Perry Willis, CCPS's executive director of support services, said the fire alarm system at PHS is operational, tested on a yearly basis, and is managed by the fire marshal for the school to obtain its certificate of occupancy — the same case as fire alarm systems in all CCPS buildings.
“They’re required to work properly or we wouldn’t even be able to open the building,” Willis said.
In elections where more than two candidates file for a seat, a runoff election is held during the April primary with the two highest vote getters earning a spot on the November general election ballot. Because Burkhardt withdrew his candidacy before the Feb. 3 deadline to not appear on the ballot and only two candidates remain in the race, the District 1 contest will not appear on the primary ballot. Instead, Heath and Davis will face off during the general election, according to Ruie Marie Lavoie, director of the Cecil County Board of Elections.
The District 1 school board seat is currently held by William Manlove, who is in his second and final term. Board of Education members are limited to serving no more than two terms.
Davis and Heath have both lived in Cecil County the majority of their lives, attended Cecil County Public Schools, raised their children in CCPS schools, and volunteered in various capacities within the school system and community.
Heath is a lifelong resident of Cecil County, who attended Holly Hall Elementary School, Elkton Middle School and Elkton High School. She left for four years to attend Salisbury University, where she graduated with a degree in business administration.
After college, Heath returned to Cecil County to raise her family and work for MBNA, a bank holding company headquartered in Wilmington, Del. She worked for MBNA in several different roles but ended up doing marketing and market research for the company until she left corporate America to stay home and raise her kids.
With three of her children having already graduated from Bohemia Manor High School and her 10th grader nearing completion, Heath said she will have the time to dedicate to the school system as a school board member.
Heath said raising four CCPS students has helped her understand the school system’s triumphs as well as areas of possible improvement.
“I feel like just being involved in the school system gives me a good feel for what we do well and what we can do better,” she said.
Heath has been a member and president of multiple parent associations and has served on several CCPS committees, including the cellphone committee and the advocacy committee at Bohemia Manor High School. She has also coached little league and high school softball teams.
Growing up, Heath said her mom volunteered and worked for more than 30 years at Holly Hall Elementary School, starting out in a variety of roles and eventually working her way up to being the school’s secretary.
Watching her mother be so involved in the school system taught Heath the importance of giving back, she said.
“My mom was always willing to help anybody who came into the school, whether it was a parent, whether it was a teacher that needed something, whether it was the principal that needed something,” she said. “She was always there to do whatever people needed to get done and she was always giving back.”
Now, Heath is hoping to continue carrying that torch as a member of the school board.
“I feel that the education of our kids is one of the most important things we can do for the future of our county.”
Like Heath, Davis has lived most of his life in Cecil County after he and his mother moved to the county when he was in the 5th grade. Since then, he has lived in practically every part of the county, including North East, Elkton, Rising Sun, Fair Hill, Perryville and now Earleville.
After graduating from North East High School, Davis studied industrial automation and robotics at the York Technical Institute, having enjoyed the show “BattleBots” as a teenager. Today, he works as a building automation systems programmer.
Davis has also coached the Chesapeake City Little League team and served as a play-by-play announcer for the Bohemia Manor High School football team.
Davis has three sons: a 13-year-old at Bohemia Manor Middle School, an 8-year-old at Cecilton Elementary School, and a 1-year-old who Davis said will be entering the school system once he is old enough.
If elected, Davis said he would make decisions as if every student was his own child because he, too, has a stake in the impact of those decisions as a CCPS parent.
“I care desperately to make everything around them (his children) the best that I can … I’m going to think of every kid in [the school system] as if they’re my own because every improvement will impact my own just the same,” he said.
School budget and priority issues
Although whoever wins the November election will be representing District 1 on the school board, Heath doesn’t want people to think of her as “just a District 1 advocate.”
“Yes, I am advocating for District 1 but it’s really about advocating for all of our students, not just District 1,” she said.
As a school board member, Heath said her priorities would be college and career preparedness after graduation, school safety, and communication between the school system and community members.
On the topic of school safety, Heath said she would push for the quick completion of the remaining nine secure entrances that are currently listed on CCPS’s Fiscal Year 2021 budget request among the school system’s small capital projects.
“It’s sad that we have to worry in today’s age and that our kids have to go to school and worry ‘Am I safe?’ I want our kids to feel as safe as they can,” she said.
Through her business background, Heath said she is familiar with basic budgeting principles and concepts. She said she has also been attending school board meetings and budget hearings with the objective that, if elected, she will be able to hit the ground running and understand the school system’s funding.
“I think that the key to the school board with this position when it comes to the budget is actually understanding the sources and the uses of funding that are specific to our school system,” Heath said, noting those sources can fluctuate year to year depending on funding formulas.
As a school board member, Heath said her role in the budget process would be “to advocate for our school system while being a good steward with our taxpayers’ money.”
Davis said he has been studying the school system’s annual comprehensive report and that he would approach the budget process “with an open mind and the desire to learn.”
“I know that some people have a mindset of what we need, and I want to learn from them and listen to the ones that have been here, the ones that have done this,” he said.
Davis also hopes he can help build the relationship between the Board of Education and the Cecil County Council and advocate for the needs of the school community.
“I know that it seems to be a contention between the county council and the school board as to the money allocation, but we have to look out for our kids and our teachers,” he said.
One of Davis’ priorities would be to lower the student-to-teacher ratio by hiring more teachers and reducing class sizes.
“Going 30 [students] to one [teacher] in a class, that’s got to be stressful for the teachers … We’ve got to back our teachers up,” he said.
CCPS began the school year with a new strategic plan, including a greater push for equity in the school system.
Davis said having a lower student-to-teacher ratio would benefit all students, especially students who require more support.
“Those who need more help, who need more assistance and need more one-on-one time or more time on them to help them, I think that ultimately would cover that,” he said.
Heath highlighted that while CCPS’s overall student enrollment is decreasing, the numbers of students in certain populations — special education students, English language learners, and students living in poverty — are increasing. She said it is important to make sure those students have the proper support that they need.
“I think it’s really about meeting each student where they are and getting them to where we want them to be,” she said.
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