In her first 100 days on the job, Howard County schools Superintendent Renee Foose has revamped the system's legal services, established an office of accountability and called for revision of a redistricting proposal to shift hundreds of students to new schools, a move that some parents have decried.
Foose is steadily imposing her management approach on the 50,000-student system as she attempts to fulfill promises to make it more transparent and accessible — directives spelled out in the entry plan she unveiled as she took over July 1.
Perhaps the most controversial move she has made involves the redistricting plan. Foose said during a recent interview at her Ellicott City office that she drew from her experiences as a principal in requesting that the school system revisit those plans for next year.
"I think what resonated the most was in one instance I was watching 300 kids get moved out of one school and 200 additional kids come into that school," Foose said of the first redistricting plan. "That changes the whole population of that school. I'm looking at it through the lens of a principal, and I'm thinking, 'How is this a good thing?' "
In June, school system officials outlined concerns and solutions to cope with overcrowding in certain portions of the county in a feasibility study, which also offered a redistricting plan. Officials sought to ease crowding in east Columbia schools and Veterans Elementary School as the county opened a new elementary school.
The feasibility study recommended redistricting 2,866 elementary school students for next year. An area attendance committee then worked most of the summer to draft a plan that called for moving 2,657 elementary students.
Yet Foose, who subsequently met with local PTAs and other members of the community, requested Oct. 1 that the area attendance committee go back to the drawing board. She directed it to come up with an alternate plan that would cause less disruption to the affected communities. The committee reconvened Oct. 9 and came up with a plan that pared down the number of students affected to 1,832.
Some parents at a redistricting hearing Tuesday night called the new plan irresponsible and shortsighted, while others praised it for causing the least amount of disruption to students.
"We were frustrated and disappointed when Dr. Foose called a last-minute meeting and asked for a new plan," said Cathy Smith of Ellicott City, speaking on behalf of the Brampton Hills neighborhood. "She discounted the entire process up to that point and disregarded an abundance of public feedback. ... She may genuinely believe this plan is better in the short run, but short-term, piecemeal plans ... are not better."
The majority of those who spoke against Foose's plan, like Smith, were in support of the final draft created by the committee over the summer. That plan would have created a westward shift to use more capacity in underused schools. Its supporters argued that by moving more students now, fewer would have to be moved later.
Those in favor of the new plan who spoke fell mainly into two groups: those happy with the shift of students to open a new elementary school on Ducketts Lane in Elkridge, and those in the St. John's Lane Elementary School community, who were included in the original redistricting plan but not in Foose's proposal.
"We understand that there are schools near us that are over capacity and they do need relief, and we recognize there are schools that are under capacity; however, we don't fit into either category," said Sara Bates, speaking on behalf of the St. John's Lane PTA. "The current plan allows healthy schools like ours to remain healthy."
Howard school board member Ellen Flynn Giles said this month that she supported revisiting the plan to examine its impact. "We'll see what comes from that as we hear from the community," she said.
Meanwhile, Christina Delmont-Small, president of the PTA Council of Howard County, said parents and community members have noticed a shift in how the school system engages with the public. She said that asking school staff to reconsider redistricting efforts to ensure they are less disruptive "is something parents have been saying for years."
"I think there is an appreciation for the increased communication," said Foose, "and a newfound level of access to the school system. There is a clear focus of what needs to get done and how to go about getting that done."
Foose also revamped the school system's legal services, eliminating two attorneys who were school system employees. School officials declined to disclose the employees' salaries but said that the move was expected to save an estimated $200,000.
"It was an operation decision and a new paradigm in how we will deliver legal services to school system employees as the need arises. They were providing administrative decisions instead of legal input," said Foose. "I felt to best get the legal services we need, we could outsource that."
Foose has also installed an office of accountability that is geared toward ensuring transparency and accountability within the school system and works with departments on applied research, testing, program evaluations, technology and auditing, school officials said.
In August, the school system named Grace Chesney, previously the executive director of research, accountability, assessment and data warehouse for Baltimore County's schools, as its chief accountability officer. Chesney worked with Foose in Baltimore and Montgomery counties.
The Howard County teachers union president also praised Foose for her communication skills, particularly involving the school system's application for a federal Race to the Top education grant. The winners of the grants would have to comply with federal guidelines to personalize education for each student, school officials said. Howard County could receive as much as $30 million from a Race to the Top grant, which is slated to be awarded in December, school officials said.
But at a school board meeting this month, Howard County Education Association President Paul Lemle asked the school system to consider withdrawing from Race to the Top because it has a provision for teacher evaluations to be based on student performance on state assessment tests. Lemle said standardized test scores should not be used in teacher evaluations and that he conveyed his concerns during a meeting with Foose.
"Our lines of communication are open," said Lemle of his contact with Foose. "The important thing for me is that she heard me out, and the result was that the discussion with the board happened like it was supposed to. I really like her supportive stance and comments about her employees. And going forward, I hope that the changes that she brings to our school system are as positive as they sound and as positive as the attitude she has about them."
When asked about Foose's first 100 days, board member Cynthia Vaillancourt said, "In that time Dr. Foose has struck a pretty impressive balance between bold moves and laying a foundation for future moves. Virtually every corner of the system is being reviewed with a fine-tooth comb. Time will tell how these initiatives and efforts will play out, but I am very optimistic that the future holds marvelous things for our students, our employees and our community."