Howard County human rights investigator accuses some school board members of discrimination, homophobia

When Renee Foose stepped down last year as superintendent of Howard County schools, someone tied a “get well” balloon to her mailbox.

But the message had been altered: “Don’t” get well soon, her anonymous correspondent wished.

It was a token of the hostility that seethed beneath the surface of one of the highest achieving and most lauded school districts in the nation.

After Foose resigned last May, the county Office of Human Rights found, her top deputies were refused appointments and barred from meetings. One was banished to a smaller office.

In reports obtained by The Baltimore Sun, human rights investigator Cheryl Brower wrote that she had found reasonable cause to believe some school board members discriminated against three of Foose’s chiefs: Tim Thornburg, director of staff relations; Grace Chesney, chief accountability officer; and John White, director of communications.

They were targeted for supporting her, Brower wrote, and in the cases of Chesney and Thornburg, for being gay. She noted evidence that two school board members had uttered homophobic remarks.

Chesney and White were laid off last June, a month after Foose left. Thornburg resigned that month.

“The BOE [Board of Education] engaged in behavior which a reasonable person would perceive as intimidating, ridiculing, demeaning, and which threatened, and actually induced, a sense of fear in central office staff,” Brower wrote.

The school board rejected the allegations. The board said in a statement that Brower relied on hearsay, ignored testimony, and drew conclusions without facts.

The board said in the statement that the investigation reports were leaked as part of a smear campaign. They said they were kept in the dark about the investigation and not shown the evidence.

“The things they said are categorically untrue,” board Chairwoman Cynthia Vaillancourt told The Sun. She called the investigation “a disgusting hatchet-job, and I don’t have any idea why it was allowed to continue.”

Mary Campbell, the compliance officer for the county Office of Human Rights, said the office cannot confirm, deny or comment on investigations.

Thornburg, Chesney and White filed complaints with the office last year. An 11-month investigation yielded three scathing reports. Copies were given to Thornburg, Chesney, White and the board.

“We will decide shortly whether to file a lawsuit,” said Jay Holland, attorney for the three.

Such reports may lead to settlement negotiations overseen by the county. But Holland said the former district chiefs withdrew their cases to explore court action.

Thornburg, Chesney and White declined to comment.

An attorney for the school board said he believed the three chiefs withdrew their cases because they lacked merit.

“Even they know that their false, one-sided narrative will not stand up to scrutiny and doesn’t deserve credibility,” attorney Mark Blom said.

Michael Martirano, who succeeded Foose as superintendent, declined to be interviewed. In an email, he touted the school district’s accomplishments since he arrived more than a year ago.

“I am disappointed that the allegations by those who were a part of a chaotic team are continuing to serve as a distraction,” he wrote.

Foose, a former school administrator in Baltimore, Montgomery and Washington counties, was broadly welcomed when she became superintendent in Howard County in 2012. The district of 77 schools and nearly 57,000 students appears regularly in national rankings; she was the first woman to lead it.

But her relationship with teachers and the board soured. She was sharply criticized over her handling of mold at Glenwood Middle School; critics say she delayed telling parents and teachers about it. They circulated a petition to “Cut Foose Loose.”

In 2016, the union backed new candidates for the board who ran on a pledge to drive Foose out. Three were elected, tipping the majority of the seven-member board against the superintendent.

The new board passed sweeping measures that December to assert authority over Foose. She responded by suing the board. The sides negotiated a settlement: The district would pay her $1.65 million to resign. She stepped down in May 2017.

The reports from the Office of Human Rights offer new details of Foose’s last five months in Howard County.

“When the new board took over, it was like the Third Reich,” former Howard County PTA President Reginald Avery told the investigator.

Vaillancourt, the school board chairwoman, said Avery’s allegations should not be believed because the investigator falsely wrote that Avery graduated from the U.S. Military Academy at West Point.

West Point spokesman Frank DeMaro said Avery attended the service academy in the 1970s but did not graduate. Avery told The Sun he flunked out after failing calculus. He said he went on to become a lieutenant colonel in the Army.

Avery said he was interviewed by Brower.

"I think I told Cheryl I had gone to West Point and been in the Class of 1976," he said. "I didn't graduate."

In the report, Brower wrote that "Mr. Avery did graduate from West Point after taking a semester off."

The new board hired Dan Furman as its attorney. His contract was capped at $24,999 — one dollar shy of the $25,000 threshold for competitive bidding, Brower wrote. Furman, an ally of the teachers union, ran unsuccessfully for the board in 2014.

“He was likely hired to assist the board in finding a way to get rid of Dr. Foose — by digging into databases and records that had nothing to do with board ‘work,’ ” Brower wrote.

Furman’s contract ended in June 2017. He disputed the allegation.

“I was not hired to find dirt on Dr. Foose,” he told The Sun.

Brower wrote that Furman sought access to student records and confidential special education files. She wrote that he barged into offices, demanded information from staff in emails, and threatened to tell the board if they didn’t comply. She wrote that Furman emailed one principal, telling her to enroll an out-of-county student, and ordered a school attorney to drop a dispute over a special education placement.

Furman said he was taking assignments directly from the board.

He said he was misrepresented in the report.

“The investigator clearly had some kind of agenda,” he said. “I will be consulting with counsel in considering whether or not I can take a legal action against the Office of Human Rights.”

Brower wrote that she found reasonable cause to believe the school board fostered an environment of severe and pervasive workplace harassment. She wrote that the evidence showed that board members Vaillancourt and Christina Delmont-Small targeted Thornburg, Chesney and White because they were closest to Foose. She wrote that Chesney and Thornburg were also targeted for being gay.

Thornburg resigned. Brower wrote that he was minimized and threatened — effectively forced out.

Martirano is not accused in the reports of making homophobic remarks. But Brower wrote that he followed the will of the school board.

She wrote that Martirano said he was shocked Thornburg resigned.

“I told him I wanted him to stay,” Martirano said, according to Brower. “I looked forward to working with him.”

Brower quoted former school board member Christine O'Connor as saying Vaillancourt and Delmont-Small derided Foose for being gay.

O’Connor said she heard Delmont-Small sniping about Foose’s lifestyle and dress. O’Connor accused Vaillancourt and Delmont-Small of being “anti-gay” and showing “pervasive hatred.”

O’Connor resigned from the school board the day after Foose resigned. Terms of four other board members expire this year. None are running for re-election.

Foose declined to comment.

Brower wrote that Vaillancourt, Delmont-Small and the rest of the board all denied making or hearing homophobic remarks. But Brower wrote that she found “credible evidence” to indicate Vaillancourt and Delmont-Small made “blatant and hateful homophobic remarks.” She cited interviews with Avery and O’Connor.

“The board’s chair [Vaillancourt] and Ms. Delmont-Small openly expressed homophobic beliefs as a reason to remove Dr. Foose, and by extension her staff,” Brower wrote.

Delmont-Small said the three chiefs withdrew their cases before she had a chance to answer the allegations.

“It is very upsetting that I have been falsely accused of making homophobic statements and they have been published in reports, and there is nothing I can do to refute them,” she wrote in an email.

Vaillancourt called the three reports “complete fabrications.”

“My older brother is gay, and I lived through what it is like for a man in our age group to grow up and try and find a place in the world,” she said. “I am not going to tolerate being accused of a homophobic.”

No other school board members were alleged to have made homophobic remarks in the report.

The investigative reports go beyond alleged discrimination by school board members. Brower noted that a parent activist would text one board member instructions to make motions during meetings. She wrote that a school board ally of Foose wrote to Howard County Executive Allan Kittleman to intervene and “stop the continuing madness.” And she reported the “get well” balloon tied to Foose’s mailbox.

Police told The Sun they examined the balloon for fingerprints, but found none.

According to the three reports — which are about 100 pages each — Thornburg told investigators that Martirano called an executive meeting one week after he became acting superintendent and quoted gangster Al Capone: “Don’t mistake my kindness for weakness. I am kind to everyone, but when someone is unkind to me, weak is not what you are going to remember about me.”

tprudente@baltsun.com

twitter.com/tim_prudente

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