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Board walkout symptom of functional breakdown

September 15, 2011

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The Maryland State Board of Education should step in to resolve the impasse on the county school board before the latter body ceases to function altogether.

A certain degree of tension on any elected body is to be expected, even desired. However, the animosity between Allen Dyer and some of his fellow board members has become personal and counterproductive.

Last week, the conflict took the board to a new level of dysfunction as chairwoman Janet Siddiqui abruptly suspended its Sept. 8 meeting as Dyer raised objections to the imminent approval of a contract with a legal firm, citing what he said is a potential conflict of interest.

The board returned about an hour later to resume its public business after board members discussed with Dyer, in a session closed to the public, what exactly he intended to say in the open.

"I suspended the meeting in order to ascertain that, in moving forward, no business or company would be slandered or the board risk further legal liability," Siddiqui said later.

Such is the level of distrust between Dyer and his colleagues, which in turn fuels distrust among the citizenry about board members' motives, on both sides of this divide.

The school board has a history of not always toeing the line when it comes to the state Open Meetings Law, and Dyer has called the board on it repeatedly since long before he finally won his own seat at the table. We have applauded his actions often, but sometimes he seems to be causing mischief for its own sake. This is one of those times.

Dyer's objection to the school system's relationship with the law firm of Carney, Kelehan, Bresler, Bennett & Scherr stems from Judith Bresler's work in two separate cases. In 2000, she represented the school superintendent in Montgomery County in a suit from a fired employee. In 2005, Bresler represented the Howard system in a similar suit, brought by Bruce Venter, whom then-Superintendent John O'Rourke had fired from his position as chief business officer.

To call that a conflict of interest, as Dyer does, strikes us as a stretch. Bresler was not "serving two masters," as Dyer put it, simultaneously, and lawyers are trained in arguing from either side of a question. Being a lawyer himself, Dyer knows that.

In fact, as other board members noted, Dyer was Venter's lawyer in his case against the county school system. If anyone has a conflict in this instance, it's Dyer.

That said, Siddiqui overreacted by suspending the meeting. If members are going to rush into the cloak room every time Dyer makes discomforting noises, this board will not be able to function effectively.

The board has already voted to ask the Maryland State Board of Education to remove Dyer from office for alleged violations of confidentiality and for suing the board since his election to it. He is contesting the action, and an administrative law judge is considering Dyer's motion to dismiss the case against him.

While all that works itself out, Dyer is still a school board member, duly elected by the voters of Howard County. The members who find him objectionable will nonetheless have to work with him, and he with them. We don't expect them to like each other, but we expect them to do their job. If they can't, the state board might have to intervene to ensure the citizens of Howard County a functioning overseer for their schools.