Crit­ics aim to give Howard school board a shakeup

Baltimore Sun - - FRONT PAGE - By Pamela Wood

Un­happy par­ents, teach­ers and ed­u­ca­tion ac­tivists are push­ing to put new faces on the Howard County school board in Tues­day’s elec­tion.

Howard’s schools have long en­joyed a rep­u­ta­tion as among Mary­land’s best, but crit­ics say board mem­ber­sandthe­su­per­in­ten­dent too of­ten act with­out public in­put and don’t lis­ten to com­mu­nity con­cerns.

Six can­di­dates are run­ning for three open seats on the seven-member board. With just one in­cum­bent still in the run­ning — two oth­ers were knocked out in the pri­mary — the school board is guar­an­teed at least two new faces.

“It’s been a very con­tentious race be­cause it’s a ref­er­en­dum, of course, on the cur­rent su­per­in­ten­dent and board ma­jor­ity. There’s a huge voter, par­ent, com­mu­nity and ed­u­ca­tor dis­sat­is­fac­tion with that group,” said Paul Lemle, pres­i­dent of the Howard County Ed­u­ca­tion

As­so­ci­a­tion, the county’s teacher union.

The school board race has drawn more in­ter­est than usual, with so­cial me­dia cam­paigns, signs dot­ting road­sides and can­di­dates mak­ing a last-minute push at early voting sites. Lemle said he has 400 teach­ers vol­un­teer­ing to cam­paign for the union’s fa­vored can­di­dates — all chal­lengers — which is quadru­ple the num­ber of vol­un­teers he nor­mally gets.

“That doesn’t hap­pen,” Lemle said. “Teach­ers don’t want to fight their board of ed­u­ca­tion. They want to teach kids, and the board of ed­u­ca­tion has been in the way of that.”

Crit­ics of the sys­tem cite a num­ber of com­plaints. They say of­fi­cials were slow to ac­knowl­edge and fix a mold prob­lem at Glen­wood Mid­dle School and that public in­for­ma­tion re­quests go un­ful­filled. They also note that there was no public dis­cus­sion be­fore the board voted in Fe­bru­ary to give Su­per­in­ten­dent Re­nee A. Foose a new four-year, $273,000-a-year con­tract and that po­si­tions for class­room as­sis­tants were cut and class sizes in­creased.

Foose de­clined to com­ment for this ar­ti­cle. Her spokesman, John White, said Foose “looks for­ward to work­ing to­gether with the board in the best in­ter­ests of all stu­dents now and in the fu­ture.”

Janet Sid­diqui, a pe­di­a­tri­cian from Clarksville and the lone in­cum­bent seek­ing to re­main on the board, dis­agrees with crit­ics who ar­gue the board has not been in­de­pen­dent enough from Foose. But she said she agrees there is room to im­prove com­mu­ni­ca­tion be­tween the sys­tem and its par­ents and teach­ers.

“We have a great school sys­tem and it didn’t get there by ac­ci­dent,” she said. “It got there by work­ing with a great com­mu­nity, a Sev­eral chal­lengers are crit­i­cal of Su­per­in­ten­dent Re­nee A. Foose and the school board. great county govern­ment, great par­ents, great teach­ers and stu­dents. We need to con­tinue to hear the voices of all those peo­ple.”

Lisa Markovitz, a lo­cal ac­tivist who be­came in­volved in the school board elec­tion through her civic group and po­lit­i­cal ac­tion com­mit­tee, the Peo­ple’s Voice, is back­ing four of the chal­lengers in the gen­eral elec­tion.

“They are all about trans­parency,” Markovitz said of the chal­lengers. “They’re all about re­spon­sive­ness. They’re all about putting money in the class­room.”

The con­cerns ex­pressed by crit­ics have drawn the at­ten­tion of other elected of­fi­cials.

Abi­par­ti­san group of state law­mak­ers got a bill passed re­quir­ing the state’s public in­for­ma­tion om­buds­man to in­ves­ti­gate the Howard school sys­tem’s han­dling of in­for­ma­tion re­quests. The re­port is due by the end of the year.

County Ex­ec­u­tive Al­lan H. Kit­tle­man, a Repub­li­can, and the County Coun­cil de­clined to fund the school sys­tem’s full bud­get re­quest, and the coun­cil is con­duct­ing its own fi­nan­cial au­dit of the school sys­tem. Coun­cil mem­bers are con­sid­er­ing ask­ing the Mary­land State Depart­ment of Ed­u­ca­tion to con­duct a per­for­mance au­dit of county schools.

“There have just been nu­mer­ous con­cerns, and it is our duty to con­tinue to ad­vo­cate and fight for our chil­dren and our fam­i­lies,” said Coun­cil Chair­man Calvin Ball, a Columbia Demo­crat.

A state au­dit re­leased in Oc­to­ber found Howard school of­fi­cials awarded salaries for ad­min­is­tra­tors with­out school board ap­proval, awarded no-bid con­tracts with­out proper jus­ti­fi­ca­tion and made mileage pay­ments to em­ploy­ees with­out doc­u­men­ta­tion of the travel. The school sys­tem’s in­ter­nal au­di­tor de­fended the prac­tices and crit­i­cized the ex­per­tise of the state au­di­tors.

Even Gov. Larry Ho­gan has weighed in, grilling Foose over the Glen­wood mold is­sue at a Board of Public Works meet­ing and say­ing, “There’s a pal­pa­ble loss of trust be­tween many par­ents and the county school sys­tem, and in par­tic­u­lar with the su­per­in­ten­dent.”

Chal­lengers are stak­ing their cam­paigns on themes of open­ness and the need to re­build trust.

Kirsten Coombs, a Columbia par­ent and the top vote-get­ter in the pri­mary, said the cur­rent board too of­ten approves con­tracts and makes fi­nan­cial de­ci­sions with­out hav­ing in­for­ma­tion they need from the su­per­in­ten­dent’s of­fice,

“Peo­ple are very wor­ried about the rep­u­ta­tion of our sys­tem,” she said. “It’s an em­bar­rass­ment for us.”

Vicky Cutro­neo, a par­ent of three who is also a chal­lenger, said she got in­volved with the mold is­sue and be­came frus­trated with a lack of com­mu­ni­ca­tion from of­fi­cials.

“It turned into much more than mold for me,” she said. She be­lieves the cur­rent board has af­fected “the cul­ture of the way we do busi­ness in the school sys­tem.”

Christina Del­mont-Small, a chal­lenger and a for­mer pres­i­dent of the coun­ty­wide PTA, said she be­came frus­trated when she served on a bud­get over­sight com­mit­tee. The school sys­tem wouldn’t pro­vide ba­sic in­for­ma­tion on past spend­ing, she said.

“Here in Howard County we love ed­u­ca­tion and we love our schools and that’s well and great, but not if the Board of Ed­u­ca­tion doesn’t do its fidu­ciary re­spon­si­bil­ity with tax­payer dol­lars,” said Del­mont-Small, an El­li­cott City par­ent of a fifth-grader and a ninth-grader.

Can­di­date Mavis El­lis of Columbia, who works as a pupil per­son­nel worker in Mont­gomery County, also says the board needs bet­ter in­for­ma­tion from the su­per­in­ten­dent’s of­fice. “That in­for­ma­tion should also be shared with our com­mu­nity,” she said.

The fifth chal­lenger, re­tired band teacher Robert Wayne Miller of Columbia, said re­gard­less of who is elected, board mem­bers need to di­rect the su­per­in­ten­dent in­stead of “be­ing di­rected by her.”

“A lot of the public, and also other govern­ment of­fi­cials, do not trust the board,” Miller said.

Sid­diqui, whose three chil­dren grad­u­ated from Atholton High School in Columbia, said she’s fo­cused on pri­or­i­ties such as elim­i­nat­ing the achieve­ment gap, ex­pand­ing well­ness pro­grams, up­dat­ing an­tibul­ly­ing poli­cies and im­ple­ment­ing later start times for mid­dle and high school stu­dents.

“I try to work col­lab­o­ra­tively with board mem­bers and I try to make rea­son­able de­ci­sions, and do the very best for our stu­dents,” she said.

BRIAN KRISTA/BAL­TI­MORE SUN ME­DIA GROUP

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