Annapolis – Top Harford County Public Schools officials were no-shows for a meeting requested by Harford's state legislators in the capital Friday morning.
One exception was school board member Robert Frisch, who showed up and tried to strike a conciliatory tone in what is becoming an increasingly contentious situation in the minds of some of the legislators.
Newly-appointed HCPS Superintendent Barbara Canavan, School Board President Nancy Reynolds and other school leaders were asked by the county legislative delegation chairman, Del. Rick Impallaria, to be present so they could discuss communication issues, including the failure by Canavan and others from HCPS to attend an annual meeting of the State Board of Public Works on Feb. 5 at which local school construction funding requests were discussed.
Friday's session was also requested to go over the school system's position on increasing vocational-technical education opportunities in Harford and pending legislation establishing a task force to study the county's needs in that regard.
Reynolds had informed Impallaria by e-mail on Wednesday that she wouldn't be attending.
As late as Thursday afternoon, a top aide to Canavan, HCPS Director of Administration Joe Licata, said he did not know if she planned to go; however, Canavan, Licata and HCPS Executive Director of Middle and High School Performance Joseph Schmitz were listed on the meeting agenda put out Thursday by the delegation office.
None of them went.
During the meeting, Impallaria said he was informed in an e-mail signed by Reynolds Thursday that Canavan and other HCPS officials would not attend.
"I am in receipt of the Delegation's agenda for February 28, 2014. Apparently there was a misunderstanding in the preparation of the agenda as no representative from the Board of Education or Harford County Public Schools will be at the above meeting," the e-mail read.
Frisch thanked the delegation for extending the invitation and the opportunity to establish a "working relationship."
"I see this as a opportunity to extend the relationship with elected officials and we have the opportunity and the desire to make sure we reach a common goal and that is – from my perspective – to make sure Harford County is the best school system we have," Frisch told the legislators. "I surely want to extend the opportunity to come down and make myself available at any time."
Members of the delegation thanked Frisch for coming. Del. Mary-Dulany James said Frisch, a school board member since 2011, has always made himself available to the delegation to discuss various issues.
The delegates then voted to send another letter to Reynolds, explaining their frustration and concern that she and other HCPS leaders didn't come to the session, especially since the vo-tech task force legislation, HB-838, which is sponsored by James, was to be discussed. The bill had a committee hearing Wednesday.
Impallaria, James, Del. Wayne Norman, Del. Kathy Szeliga and Del. Susan McComas voted to send the letter. Del. Glen Glass, however, did not agree.
"Last year in the fall, the delegation was invited to meet with the school board and a lot of us were too busy to go," Glass said to his colleagues. "I think the school board has been reaching out to us. We need to be patient with them. I just don't like the letter."
Norman pointed out that the legislative session ends in a few weeks. He said the school board and superintendent's inability to meet or schedule an alternative time does not make sense.
"The best way to deal with this issue is to deal with it head on, so we deal with it and make sure it doesn't get worse," Impallaria said.
While she voted to send the letter, James said she didn't agree with the tone and verbiage.
Impallaria sent the letter to Reynolds via e-mail Friday afternoon, with copies to Harford County Executive David Craig and members of the Harford County Council.
"You requested a private meeting with me. After discussing your request with the full Delegation and our staff legal counsel, we determined, as I informed you, that because of the Open Meeting laws this was not advisable," Impallaria wrote. "The full delegation expected you to openly discuss the issues arising out of the Board's non-attendance at the Board of Public Works meeting and to provide us with the information we requested pertaining to vocational education in Harford County.
"The Delegation sees no reason to meet behind closed doors for the purpose of having discussions that the public is not privy to," he wrote.
He also wrote that the board "demonstrates a disingenuous attitude" regarding its commitment to vo-tech education, telling the legislators it was starting its own task force to study those needs, while at the same time cutting programs and teachers.
Following the meeting, Impallaria also sent a letter on behalf of the delegation to Canavan, also by e-mail, requesting that future communication with the delegation come directly from her and not through the board president.
"I regret that you decided not to attend the Harford Delegation meeting today, and your total inability to notify the delegation of your intention," Impallaria wrote. "Apparently Board President Reynolds speaks not only for the Board, but for your Administration as well...I have never seen a school board or board of trustees speak for the Superintendent. There is always supposed to be a professional separation between those bodies for the purposes of checks and balances."
Though the e-mail suggests Canavan and the delegation will be able to avoid similar communication issues in the future if they speak directly, Canavan is, legally speaking, anyway, an employee of the board
Impallaria said he also spoke with school board member Alysson Krchnavy and board Vice President Rick Grambo before the meeting. He said Krchnavy informed him that she was not available, but he and Grambo got into a very heated conversation.
In an interview last week, Grambo had said the non-attendance by Canavan and other school leaders at the Board of Public Works meeting was being blown out of proportion by some legislators, noting the meeting occurred on a day when schools had been closed because of a snowstorm and that the HCPS leaders were informed final funding decisions wouldn't be affected if they weren't present.