ELKTON — Cecil County Board of Education President Dawn Branch and Board Member Wendy Wintersgill participated in their final school board meeting Monday night, but both women promised that their advocacy for the students of Cecil County Public Schools will not stop with the end of their terms in office.

“To the Cecil County community, thank you for trusting me to always advocate for our students and our community,” Branch said. “This will not stop because I am no longer a board member. I will continue to advocate for what is right.”

Branch told the Whig that she’ll continue running her travel agency and is looking forward to figuring out what will come next in her story.

Wintersgill, who works as an advanced practice nurse for Lancaster General Health in Pennsylvania, said she is currently learning reiki, an alternative medicine that promotes healing through touch. She said her goal is to one day open her own reiki studio where she will offer reiki to teachers at whatever price they are able to afford.

“I might be able to save a life, but my gosh (teachers) create them … Nurses go through a lot of trauma in the care of their patients every day. But what I also see is that teachers also go through a lot of trauma in the care of their students every day,” Wintersgill said.

Recognition of service

Members of the school board are limited to serving two four-year terms. So, after eight years of service to CCPS, Branch and Wintersgill bid farewell to their positions on the board as their fellow board members, CCPS administrators, employees and community members recognized them for their service.

CCPS Superintendent Jeff Lawson commended Branch and Wintersgill for their “eight years of service to the CCPS family.”

“Some of the best work that’s occurred in the state of Maryland has happened under your watch and with your partnership,” he said.

Lawson also acknowledged the family members who supported the two board members during those eight years.

“It’s also important that we recognize the sacrifice that’s been on the part of Jacob Branch, Dawn’s son, as well as Rob Wintersgill, Wendy’s husband, and Emily Kate, [Wendy’s] eighth grade daughter at North East Middle School,” he said.

As the mothers of former and current CCPS students respectively, Branch and Wintersgill have shown that they love the students in this school system just like their own, board colleague William Malesh said.

“You’ve given a portion of your life to service … That’s a portion of your life you’re about to have back again, but it was basically a dedication of love,” said Malesh, whom voters re-elected for a second term last week.

Board member William Manlove said Branch and Wintersgill changed his mind about the value of the arts in education.

“I never believed that the arts were worth the money that was being spent in schools,” he said. “These two ladies have changed my mind 100 percent.”

While not always in agreement with Branch and Wintersgill, board member Jim Fazzino said he was grateful to have served with them.

“It really has been a pleasure learning with you, advocating with you, at times debating with you, and most importantly serving with you,” he said.

Fazzino thanked both women for the countless hours they sacrificed and the many sleepless nights they spent wrestling with tough decisions.

“You’ve earned a well-deserved rest from all the work, but we know you will stay intimately involved because your passion for education and the children of our community rings true in all you have done and, I’m sure, will continue to do,” he said.

Kayla Russell, the student member of the board, thanked Wintersgill and Branch for helping her acclimate to her position and setting her up for success. Russell, speaking for the students of CCPS, also expressed her gratitude for both women’s work to improve the school system.

“I want to say thank you on behalf of all of the students for your dedication and hard work for us,” she said. “You have really truly made the school system better.”

Lori Hrinko, president of the Cecil County Classroom Teachers Association, praised Branch and Wintersgill for their dedication to the county’s students.

“It’s been eight years,” she said. “I’ve had the pleasure of watching your children grow up while you’ve been supporting our children.”

Hrinko presented the original “apple ballots” that CCCTA used to endorse Wintersgill and Branch when they were school board candidates.

Hrinko also revealed that CCCTA will be making a donation to the Cecil County Public Library system in each of their honor. Both women will be able to select the subject matter for new book purchases and the locations where they want the books to be housed. The books will have commemorative book plates honoring Branch and Wintersgill’s service to CCPS students.

Mike Fell, of the Cecil County Public Schools Administrators and Supervisors Association, said the school board was traversing the unknown when Branch and Wintersgill were first elected in 2010.

“We were still in that transition between the appointed board and the elected board. Quite frankly, we were worried if were going to get quality folks,” Fell said. “How lucky we were when the two of you decided to run and then were elected in 2010.”

The two women were also recognized by Scott Heckert, president of the Central Office Support Service Leadership Association; Margaret Brown, assistant for office professionals; and Bob Connell, president of the Cecil Education Support Personnel Association.

‘We kept going’

While recognizing Branch and Wintersgill, Lawson highlighted some of the accomplishments the two women have witnessed and contributed to during their time on the board, such as the creation of the Cecil County School of Technology, the construction and opening of the new Gilpin Manor Elementary School, dramatic improvements to graduation rates, and an increase of the number of students participating in Advanced Placement courses.

Branch also acknowledged some of the other projects that she and Wintersgill were a part of, including the strengthening of partnerships with local government, the creation of two turf fields, securing school entrances, and collaborating with local law enforcement agencies to adopt ALICE training as CCPS’s safe schools initiative to prepare students and staff for an active intruder emergency.

ALICE is an acronym for “alert, lockdown, inform, counter, evacuate,” and is promoted as a more proactive alternative to the “shelter in place” that has traditionally been taught in schools.

In an interview with the Whig, Branch said the formation of CCST was a long and, at times, challenging process.

In 2005, the state granted approval for the county to build a new technical school. However, the project came to a halt in 2008 as the recession fell upon the county and the nation as a whole.

Initially, CCPS planned to build a new school to house the tech school, but learned that doing so would have doubled the cost, Branch said.

In the summer of 2012, the school system came across the former Basell research and development facility and asked the county to allow them to use it for the technical school. But the county, then still under its former commissioner-style government, declined CCPS’s request in a 3-2 vote.

Yet that rejection didn’t stop CCPS, Branch said.

“We kept going,” she said. “We kept persisting.”

With the 2013 conversion to charter government and a new slate of elected officials in office, CCPS teamed with then-County Executive Tari Moore to secure funding to buy the Basell site to convert it into the school now in use.

Branch still remembers the day that she and other county officials were able to cut the ribbon for the school and see their work come to fruition in 2015.

“It was a beautiful day,” she said. “We were all happy and celebrating. It just shows you that persistence does pay off. Doing the right thing matters.”

Now, the school offers programs in a variety of trade skills that open doors to students who may not wish to follow the traditional path to higher education.

Branch said she is proud of the progress that has been made at CCST, and she hopes that one day CCST can become the comprehensive high school that CCPS first envisioned. Currently, students attend technical coursework at the school along with core courses at their home high school.

Fighting for funds

The recession didn’t just put the plans for CCST on hold for a few years; it also sparked tension between CCPS and the then-county board of commissioners, according to Branch.

It was “shockingly difficult” to receive the necessary school funding from county government at the time, she said.

“During Mrs. Wintersgill and my first couple years, we kept getting ‘maintenance of effort’ which is bare bones funding … Maintenance of effort is like trying to pay the interest on your mortgage, but not being able to pay the principle. You cannot function. We are still in many ways catching up from that,” she said.

Despite those setbacks, Branch said she, her fellow school board members and CCPS officials were able to show members of county government the need for supporting quality education for the county’s children.

“We had to advocate for our schools, we had to show transparency, we had to build a trust,” she said. “It seemed like to me that they had been trying to do that, but again some of the former commissioners just put roadblocks and challenges up that were unnecessary.”

Branch also acknowledged that economic growth since the recession has allowed county government to be less restrictive when it comes to allocating funds to the school system.

“The county government is in a much better financial situation now than they have been, just like nationally,” she said. “As the revenue grows in the county government, it allows schools to get funded better.”

Branch said it has been — and will continue to be — important for CCPS to demonstrate transparency year round and to open its doors to the community so they can see the value of investing in public education.

“We try to invite them (county officials) into our schools throughout the school year, not just at budget time to say ‘This is what we need,’” she said. “We need to get them to understand our need, not just a line item on a budget.”

A new super

One of the board’s more recent decisions that has impacted schools countywide was the appointment of CCPS Superintendent Jeff Lawson, who was a longtime CCPS associate superintendent. The decision didn’t come without controversy, however, as the school board voted 3-2 in May to approve his promotion.

Branch, who served her entire eight-year term with former superintendent D’Ette Devine until her retirement in June, said she did not take the process of finding Devine’s replacement lightly.

“There was a lot of pressure because we couldn’t get it wrong,” Branch said. “The person we chose was going to lead the school system and move forward.”

But after whittling the applicants down to a small pool of finalists, and eventually selecting Lawson as the new superintendent, Branch said she is confident they made the right decision.

“It was very challenging to make sure we didn’t get it wrong,” she said. “I truly believe that we got it right. With all my heart, I believe that Dr. Lawson is the right person to lead Cecil County Public Schools.”

During the Monday meeting, Branch told Lawson, “I have never questioned our decision to choose you … My only regret is I don’t get to work with you longer.”

But if she were to choose one moment she is proudest of, Branch said she would undoubtedly choose the day that her son, Jacob, walked across the stage in his cap and gown and graduated from North East High School in 2017.

At the Monday meeting, Branch thanked her son, “the most important person in my life.”

“Your patience, understanding, logic, support and that sense of humor of yours mean a great deal to me,” she said. “Speaking at your high school graduation and handing you your diploma is a day I will never forget.”

Passing the torch

Present in the audience at the Monday meeting were incoming board members Diana Hawley and Christie Stephens, who will fill the vacancies left by Branch and Wintersgill, respectively.

The outgoing board members expressed their confidence in their replacements and the future success of the board.

“I’ll rest easy knowing you are both taking over the reins, and I wish you much success as you advocate for our students,” Branch said.

Wintersgill told the Whig that she trusts the current board members’ ability to guide the way for Hawley and Stephens.

“We have new board members who will come on, and we have solid board members behind who will help them to understand and I hope work with same-mindedness as we go forward,” she said.

Branch told the Whig that her advice for Stephens and Hawley is to be receptive to the community’s feedback, stay true to themselves, and lean on their fellow board members.

“Listen and learn,” she said. “Advocate from your heart and do what you feel is right. And remember it’s a team effort.”

Leaving a legacy

As she steps down from her role as president of the board, Branch said it is difficult to sum up her legacy from her eight years in office. However, she hopes community members will see that she served with careful consideration for every choice she made.

“My decisions were always made based on what was best for our students and staff with the information that I had at the time,” she said. “These decisions were a combination of trust, respect and knowledge.”

She went on to tell the Whig that “I hope that people will know that I did the right thing for the right reasons.”

Wintersgill shared Branch’s sentiment, saying the board she was a part of led with “reality-based leadership.”

“We know the challenges, we’re well-informed and we were able to work within the resources that were in front of us,” she said. “We are not a board that bickers and wastes time when we have students and our teachers counting on us.”

Wintersgill reflected on a nurses conference that she attended where physician and activist Dr. Patch Adams shared his experiences with using community bonds in village environments to help patients heal from behavioral issues and mental illnesses. That message of community and love is something that Wintersgill said rings true in schools as well.

“What he has demonstrated is people need love and they need each other,” she said. “What schools have become is what kids need more than ever today — and that’s a community where they can be loved and accepted.”

Branch said she is proud of the strides CCPS has made in recognizing the challenges faced by students who experience poverty, live with trauma, and come from diverse backgrounds.

“Our schools represent the communities where they stand,” she said. “Each is unique, as are our students … Every student deserves the chance to be successful, and that has always been the reason that each of us works so hard.”

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