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Howard County board pledged to pay Foose $1.65 million package to step down as school superintendent

The Howard County school board agreed to pay nearly $1.65 million in salary and benefits to persuade Renee Foose to retire as schools superintendent.

The payments, to be made through 2020, exceed what it would have cost the board to keep Foose for the three years left on her contract. The board disclosed the details Wednesday in response to a Public Information Act request by The Baltimore Sun.

The board agreed this week to pay Foose $1.13 million in “post-termination payments”, plus  $171,000 for her retirement, $278,000 for her pension and $65,000 for her unused days off. The board also agreed to provide Foose lifelong health benefits equal to those received by retirees of Howard County schools.

The agreement settles months of public feuding and behind-the-scene negotiations between the board and fifth-year superintendent. Foose retired Tuesday.

"You kind of raise your eyebrows and go, 'Wow!'" said Daniel Domenech, executive director of the American Association of School Administrators. "It's a big payout with a long time left on the contract. Generally, there's a year left, maybe they just don't extend the contract. To terminate a contract with three years left, that's unusual."

The superintendent and the board had been locked in a power struggle since three new members were elected to the board on an anti-Foose platform. With a majority of the board now critical of Foose, the majority passed sweeping measures to expand its authority. Foose sued them.

Under the settlement signed May 2, Foose agreed to drop her lawsuit and both sides agreed to cease making disparaging comments about each other.

The terms of the separation promptly drew fire.

"It is an outrageous abuse of Howard County taxpayers," said state Del. Warren Miller, a Howard County Republican. "While it's great that she's gone, we should not be rewarding her for suing the school board."

Christine O'Connor, a Foose ally who resigned from the board Wednesday, said Foose "deserves every penny."

"It's just a shame that it had to go this way, that they're wasting money on two superintendents."

The board will also be paying the salary of Foose's interim replacement, former West Virginia state schools superintendent Michael Martirano.

Foose and her attorney, Timothy Maloney, declined to comment on the payout.

Board chairwoman Cynthia Vaillancourt said a prolonged legal fight with Foose would have cost the district even more. The board's attorneys charged about $150,000 for five weeks of work.

"It was pretty clear that it was time for us to part ways," Vaillancourt said. "This was a very expensive argument."

Vaillancourt said the payments to Foose would likely come from money that had been intended to pay down the school district debt in a health and dental fund.

The board has been confronted with difficult financial decisions in recent months. The members voted to dismantle a college scholarship program for students from low-income families, saying Foose had failed to raise money to sustain it. The board also faced questions over how it intended to pay the escalating legal bills.

County Executive Allan Kittleman proposed funding the school system at $54 million less than the district's record-high budget request for next year.

Towanda Brown, a parent activist who supported Foose, called her departure "a shame."

"The county is hurting for money and programs for our children," she said. "But the board and other people are hell bent on getting her out of the way."

Martirano has served as director of elementary education in Howard County and superintendent in St. Mary's County. He was named Foose's successor at least through June.

Vaillancourt said Martirano's contract has not been finalized, but he will be paid an amount "commensurate" with Foose's salary of $273,000 a year.

O'Connor said she was fed up with her colleagues. "I will no longer participate in the political nonsense, disruption and disturbances that are taking place," she said. "My focus has always been on the children; theirs is on politics."

Kittleman is responsible for appointing someone to finish the final year of O'Connor's term. A spokesman for Kittleman said there are no immediate candidates.

Kittleman served as mediator during months of negotiations between Foose and the school board. He declined through a spokesman to comment on the amount of the settlement.

"Whatever action was taken was the board's action," spokesman Andy Barth said. "It's not up to the county executive to make that call."

County Councilwoman Mary Kay Sigaty, a former school board member, questioned how the board would afford two superintendents. Councilman Calvin Ball said the sides probably could have come to terms without a payout.

"Either way, we needed to make some changes," Ball said.

Foose, 50, was hired in 2012 as the first woman to run the high-achieving school system, but her relationship with the board and the teachers union soured.

Her opponents on and off the board described her as secretive and dictatorial.

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

Her opponents campaigned and won election in December on calls for new leadership. The new board quickly passed eight resolutions to broaden its authority. Foose filed her lawsuit in Howard County Circuit Court the next month.

During Foose's tenure, the district scored highest in Maryland on state and national academic measures in the past three years, she noted in her lawsuit. The county's graduation rate peaked at 93.5 percent under Foose in fiscal year 2015, her lawyers wrote. She launched sweeping plans to transform elementary education with foreign language instruction and refocused subjects.

Opponents grew increasingly organized in recent months. They circulated an online petition to have Foose fired. Some rallied outside county offices last month; one woman carried a sign reading "Cut Foose Loose."

The previous board renewed Foose's four-year contract in February 2016.

Paul Lemle, president of the county teachers union, said the buyout was unfortunate but necessary.

"It is worth it because it lets the school system move forward now instead of in three years," he said. "But you know, it isn't with any joy."

Baltimore Sun Media Group reporters Liz Bowie and Fatimah Waseem contributed to this article.

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