Howard board, superintendent in legal battle as they run county school system

A new majority took over the Howard County school board in December and passed sweeping measures to assert its authority over superintendent Renee Foose.

In response, she sued them.

Now the superintendent and school board are locked in a costly power struggle with dueling accusations and no lack of recrimination. The internal strife threatens to disrupt Maryland's sixth-largest school system, a district with 76 schools and 55,000 students that consistently ranks among the best in the nation.

"I've been very disappointed with the way that we're operating right now," said Kathryn McKinley, principal of River Hill High School. "It just seems to be dysfunctional."

The dispute escalated this month after the board dismantled Foose's scholarship program to send aspiring teachers from low-income families to McDaniel College. The Teachers for Tomorrow program was heralded as the first of its kind in the nation, an innovative approach to diversify the teaching corps in Howard County schools.

McDaniel President Roger Casey said he is consulting attorneys after the board backed out and abandoned the student finalists for 11 scholarships.

"We thought this was just atrocious. How could you possibly lead your students on?" Casey said. "They're basing these decisions about a battle that they have with the superintendent."

Three new board members were sworn in Dec. 5, giving the seven-member panel a majority critical of Foose. The board quickly passed eight resolutions to broaden its authority. Foose responded the next month with a lawsuit in Howard County Circuit Court alleging the board passed illegal measures to undermine her. A trial has not been scheduled.

Foose says she filed suit to preserve her ability to run the school system without interference from the board. "We're getting calls that board members are coming into schools unannounced and stirring things up unnecessarily and causing controversies," Foose said. "This is so not necessary."

Her critics on the board argue they were elected to rein in a superintendent regarded as both secretive and dictatorial. "The community spoke loud and clear in the election that it is extremely unhappy with the direction and management of the school system," said Cynthia Vaillancourt, the board chairwoman.

The tension has widened a rift between central office staff loyal to Foose and the elected board members. The two sides are at an impasse over payment of the school board's nearly $150,000 in legal bills. And staff have petitioned the Howard County Office of Human Rights to intervene, claiming board members have created a hostile work environment and have belittled and bullied employees. Vaillancourt contends staffers loyal to Foose pressured others to sign.

The recent quarrel over Foose's ambitious Teachers for Tomorrow program was especially contentious. The first class of 11 scholarship recipients selected last spring included graduates of Reservoir High School and Wilde Lake High School, one of whom was the first in his family to attend college and another who was born in Caracas, Venezuela.

The contract with McDaniel College, signed in August 2015, requires the school district to subsidize tuition for "up to 12 students per year." The district pays about $12,000 a year for each scholar. The college and donors cover the rest of the approximately $50,000 a year cost. In exchange, the students pledge to work three years for Howard County schools after graduation.

McDaniel administrators interviewed 14 finalists this spring for the second scholarship class. But the board voted this month to cut the second class to a single student, saying one satisfies the requirement of up to 12.

The board pledged to fund for four full years the students already accepted, but canceled the program after that.

Board members say Foose never raised enough money to continue to cover the costs of the program. But McDaniel's Casey says he found a donor willing to contribute $100,000 a year, and Foose argues that the school system could have raised more if the board helped.

Vaillancourt says Foose should have warned the board that money was dwindling before interviews for the second class of students began.

"I feel terrible. There is no excuse for anybody to be put in this position," Vaillancourt said. "This was an inexcusable failure of leadership."

Casey sees it differently. "Our lawyer is talking to their lawyer, as you might imagine," Casey said. "It's very clear to me that the position of the majority of the board is about politics and not about students."

Five board members routinely side against Foose. The Howard County Education Association, a union with 5,500 members, surveyed more than 3,000 of its school district employees and announced last month that support for Foose has plunged to 10.8 percent.

"The situation is untenable," said Paul Lemle, president of the union and a critic of Foose. "It's absolutely time for her to go."

Superintendents often resign amid irreconcilable differences with their school boards. In Howard County, however, both sides have dug in.

"These attempts to distract me from doing my job are unsuccessful," Foose said.

Howard County Executive Allan Kittleman declined to comment through a spokesman. He has called the lawsuit an "unfortunate distraction."

State law long ago established that local boards couldn't fire their superintendents, except in Baltimore City. That power rests solely with the state superintendent of schools, who hasn't fired a superintendent in at least 20 years.

Foose's lawsuit contends that Howard County school board members met privately three times to manufacture a reason to have Foose fired or make her job so burdensome she quits.

"The new majority came on with one thing on their plates," said Christine O'Connor, the previous board chairwoman and an ally of Foose. "The only thing they focused on was getting rid of Dr. Foose — it's just a mess."

Foose became the first woman to lead Howard County schools in 2012 and she defended her performance in the lawsuit, noting the district scored the highest in Maryland on state and national academic measures in the past three years. The county's graduation rate peaked at 93.5 percent under Foose in fiscal year 2015, her attorneys wrote. The previous school board renewed Foose's four-year contract for $273,000 last year.

Still, she was sharply criticized over her handling of mold found at Glenwood Middle School in 2015. Critics said she delayed telling parents and teachers about the mold and they allege students became sick as a result.

"A lot of what's going on focused around what happened in 2015 with the mold issue," said Towanda Brown, a parent activist who supports Foose. "When do you let that go and move on?"

State law establishes that a superintendent can be fired only for five reasons: immorality, misconduct, insubordination, incompetency or willful neglect of duty.

"Since it's never been done before, there aren't any guidelines on what's enough," said Vaillancourt. She declined to say if the board was working to get Foose fired.

In a January Facebook message, Vaillancourt urged voters to petition state legislators to change the law.

"Only the state legislature has the authority to fix this absurdity," she wrote.

Howard County Delegates Vanessa Atterbeary and Eric Ebersole sponsored a bill in February that would empower local school boards to fire their superintendents. The bill stalled in committee.

Meanwhile, hostility between the two sides has spilled out at school board meetings, including over the board's legal bills.

Vaillancourt heavily redacted the bills before submitting them to the central office for payment, saying it would be unreasonable to allow "the opposition" to review them.

Caryn Lasser, the school system's executive services director, refused to pay them.

"I cannot assess what I can't read," she told the board.

The attorneys billed the district about $146,200 for five weeks of work, according to invoices obtained by The Baltimore Sun. An attorney from Saul Ewing LLP charged as much as $576 an hour.

The bills include expenses of nearly $3,000 for the board's attorneys to review news coverage of the lawsuit, including an article from the Washington Post. Vaillancourt said the expense was necessary to document Foose's statements "to see what she's been saying in public, the positions she has taken."

Vaillancourt led the board in three votes last month that directed staff to pay the bills. Lasser didn't back down. "I don't think it's a responsible use and the right thing for me to do with taxpayer money," she said.

Payments to contractors require approval from the superintendent; Foose has argued the board's attorneys are no exception. Foose is paying her own legal bills, though she declined to reveal the amount.

"We don't want to be spending this money," said Kirsten Coombs, a new board member, "but we didn't sue ourselves."

The state school board ruled last month that contracts are invalid without Foose's signature, but that the superintendent can't withhold approval for "arbitrary or capricious reasons."

The bills remain unpaid. The state has ordered Foose and the school board to mediation. Both sides must report their progress by May 30.

Nearly 60 employees in the central office signed a petition last month calling for the Howard County Office of Human Rights to step in. The employees claim board members have overwhelmed them with demands.

Frustrations erupted at a recent meeting. Beverly Davis, the district's chief financial officer, complained about the "tremendous drain and hours of work after work after work" that the board has imposed on staff.

"How can we possibly get our jobs done? We can't," Davis said. "We are stressed out."

Foose defended her staff, saying, "The staff feels pushed at the envelope and I think it's about mutual respect."

"We're not going to have this tonight," Vaillancourt said, interrupting. "Dr. Foose, you're out of order."

"No, I'm not," Foose said. "I'm not out of order, Mrs. Vaillancourt."

tprudente@baltsun.com

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