Citizens support superintendent
CENTREVILLE — More than 200 citizens turned out Wednesday, April 6, to have their voices heard at the Queen Anne’s County School Board meeting, which earlier was moved to the cafeteria at Centreville Middle School to accommodate the anticipated crowd. The main topic of discussion was the board’s decision not to renew Superintendent of Schools Dr. Carol Williamson’s contract. The majority of over two hours of public comments were in support of keeping Williamson.
All 190 seats provided were filled Wednesday night, with about 50 more people standing in the rear of the room and in the hallway for the meeting that lasted three and a half hours.
Those who wished to comment during the meeting were asked to sign in recording their names, telephone numbers and address; 40 citizens spoke before the board. Of the 40 who spoke, 38 did so in support of
Williamson and were in favor of the board renewing Willamson’s contract as superintendent, two spoke in favor of the board’s decision, advocating change.
A petition signed by 300 Queen Anne’s County high school students in support of Dr. Williamson was presented by one of the student board members.
Former County Commissioner Bob Simmons was among the first to speak. He said he had addressed the board at the March meeting both during the public comment session and in writing, he believed he should have received some response following the meeting.
Simmons told the board to consider his previous letters a formal complaint and offered that they might post their reply on the QACPS website.
Richard McNeal, interim principal at Sudlersville Elementary, spoke to the school board members, stating he did not believe the board displayed proper use of the democratic process. McNeal was concerned that the statement, “Black lives matter,” made at the March meeting by board member Arlene Taylor was misleading.
“Do not all lives matter? Should we not express that consideration to all of our students?” McNeal asked. McNeal also asked that the board provide him with a written response within 10 working days.
Bill Schindler, professor at
Washington College and father to three students in QACPS, said, “Dr. Williamson deserves our complete support and a formal apology... the board has not acted in the best interest of its students.” He questioned the board’s decision to “strategically minimize public comment” by moving all but 30 minutes of public comment to the end of the meeting.
Intentional or not, those who came to speak were not deterred by the disjointed public comment session. Although some did leave after the first half of the meeting, the room remained full. Some board members appeared disinterested in the speakers and were observed using their phones during the citizen comments, others were anxious to adhere to the twominute time limit imposed, but for the most exchanges between speakers and the board remained respectful.
In an unexpected move during Wednesday’s meeting, the board voted to retain a second attorney, Susanne Henley. Board attorney Rochelle Eisenberg will continue to provide services said board President, Jennifer George, but the consensus of the board was that they had not been duly represented by Eisenberg at the previous meeting. Henley, who practices law in Centreville with her firm Henley and Henley, is presently counsel for the Queen Anne’s County Board of Education Ethics Panel.
Eisenberg is a member of the Maryland law firm of Pessin Katz Law, P.A., and according to her bio has practiced education and employment
law in the public and private sectors since 1977, representing school systems and employers throughout the state. She is a past president of the Maryland Council of School Attorneys, has taught at colleges and universities, and provided numerous seminars on school and employment law. Eisenberg has contributed to the Maryland School Law Deskbook, the current and authoritative information on legal issues facing Maryland schools within the context of state and federal education law.
Board member Captain Beverly Kelley said, “I am very uncomfortable with the relationship [referring to Henley’s position as counsel with the Board of Ethics] and am not certain that this move will provide us all with good legal representation.”
George disagreed and the motion was carried, three to two. Harper and Kelley voted against the motion.
Mid-way through the evening’s meeting, the items of Interim Superintendent and Superintendent search were on the agenda. Again in a vote carried three to two, the board voted to appoint Gregory Pilewski, assistant superintendent as interim superintendent. Pilewski has been with the Queen Anne’s County Public Schools since August 2015 serving as assistant auperintendent for instruction services and school improvement.
Williamson will remain as Superintendent until her contract expires July 1, 2016. The position of assistant superintendent remains vacant at this time.
Board member Tammy Harper was tasked during the Feb. 17 meeting to research which agency might best be used to conduct the search for superintendent. Harper said the figures ranged from $25,000 to $50,000 to solicit help to conduct the search. Wednesday night, she recommended the board consider using Maryland Association of Boards of Education (MABE).
MABE had been used by QACPS in prior searches and the board would need to allocate only $30,000 to use their services, Harper said.
After a brief recess, the meeting reopened for public comment and continued with many citizens thanking Williamson for her services. Several apologized to Williamson for the public humiliation caused by the board’s actions. Residents asked for transparency and answers as to why the board elected not to renew Williamson’s contract.
“Duty, honor and respect. These are fundamental characteristics we teach our children and we demand of our elected official,” Kristen Holocker read on behalf of herself and father Bryan Holocker.
“You,” Holocker told the board, “swore an oath to defend the laws of the state, the guidelines set forth for your public office and to serve the people of Queen Anne’s County. Selecting the next superintendent without any input from the community is neglectful and secret meetings and votes that violate the law, serve only to divide the community.”
Holocker continued, “We demand respect of ourselves and form those elected by us. There are basic principles [set forth] by our system to ensure stability and peace ... but elected officials do not have the right to threaten citizens or employees.”
Emily Chamlee-Wright, provost and dean at Washington College, asked of the board, “What performance standards was Dr. Willamson measured to and found lacking?”
Chamlee-Wright said it wasn’t for the board to disclose personnel matters, but to assure the citizens of the county that there was meaningful evidence to warrant their decision.
“If we do not receive an answer within 10 days, one could argue the board’s actions constitute a willful act of negligence and would constitute a need for removal.”
Chamlee-Wright’s comments were based on prior discussion with the board and citizens that change for the sake of change was not a reason to replace a superintendent, but the board had argued there were foundational cracks that needed to be repaired. One speaker called this rhetoric and demanded that an explanation be given to the public for the board’s reasoning.
Chamlee-Wright called for the board to make one act of courage by resigning their position and give the opportunity to allow the county to move forward in a healing way.
Those who spoke seemed to represent the feelings of the majority who attended Wednesday’s meeting. Frustrated, disappointed, dismayed at the injustice and lack of transparency were words that were oft repeated in public comment. One speaker called the behavior of the board “egregious” and suggested the integrity of members was lacking.
Some, who did not speak during the meeting, said elsewhere they thought the issue had been belabored long enough and change might be overdue.
One speaker noticeably became discouraged when board members were reluctant to make eye contact with her.
Several speakers said that they were aware complaints had been filed with the school’s Board of Ethics and the Maryland State Board of Education. Wes Campbell said he had received information that the legal counsel for the State Board of Education had received those complaints and would be pursuing the matter.
Linda Austin, who participated in the survey generated by a group of concerned parents, said she had hoped the survey, which was anonymous, would reveal some of the reasoning behind why the board was standing so firm in their decision, but she saw nothing to justify those actions.
“Please listen to us going forward,” Austin asked the board, “and don’t allow yourselves to pulled by the strings of a puppet master. You can replace a superintendent, but you cannot replace Dr. Williamson.”