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Ousted Foose chiefs sue Howard County school board over alleged discrimination

Three top chiefs under former Howard County schools superintendent Renee Foose have sued the county school board, alleging that its members discriminated, harassed and retaliated against them for their political opinions and in two cases for being gay.

In a lawsuit filed Tuesday in Howard County Circuit Court, the chiefs accuse school board members Cynthia Vaillancourt and Christina Delmont-Small of making homophobic remarks. They also accuse the full board, its former attorney and current superintendent Michael Martirano of harassing them for their support of Foose.

The lawsuit was brought by Tim Thornburg, the former director of staff relations; Grace Chesney, the former chief accountability officer; and John White, the former director of communications.

“We look forward to seeing this matter through and vindicating their rights and the harm that they suffered,” said their attorney, Jay Holland.

Holland said they’re seeking damages in excess of $75,000. They’re seeking a jury trial.

Thornburg resigned and Chesney and White were laid off in June 2017, one month after Foose stepped down. Foose is not a party in the case.

The lawsuit is the latest salvo in the long-running feud that pitted Foose and her allies against school board members elected to bring change. Board members have said the latest allegations amount to a smear campaign.

“The Board of Education and Dr. Martirano have been upfront and have provided information to our community regarding these unsubstantiated complaints and do not wish to litigate this matter through the media,” school board attorney Mark Blom said in a statement. “We are moving forward and focusing our attention on our students and staff as we begin a new school year.”

Vaillancourt and Delmont-Small did not immediately respond to requests for comment Thursday.

The board has not filed its response.

The lawsuit came days after The Baltimore Sun obtained and reported on the findings of an 11-month investigation into the school board by the Howard County Office of Human Rights. Investigator Cheryl Brower wrote that she had found reasonable cause to believe some school board members discriminated against Foose’s three chiefs.

“The [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.

Her three reports, which are about 100 pages each, are considered confidential by investigators. School district officials have declined to release the full reports.

The lawsuit repeats many of Brower’s allegations.

“Ms. Vaillancourt stated that Central Office was overrun by ‘them,’ referring to Dr. Foose, Ms. Chesney, and Mr. Thornburg and their sexual orientations,” the chiefs allege in the lawsuit. “She also stated that Mr. White was ‘light in the loafers’ and made a comment about whether Dr. Foose and Ms. Chesney were in a personal relationship.”

Board members have criticized Brower’s investigation. They have noted that the investigator quoted former Howard County PTA President Reginald Avery as saying he heard homophobic remarks.

School board members have pointed out that Brower erroneously wrote that Avery had graduated from the U.S. Military Academy at West Point. An academy spokesman told The Sun that Avery attended but didn’t graduate.

In their lawsuit, the chiefs say the homophobic remarks fostered a hostile and abusive working environment. Federal and local laws ban workplace discrimination based on sexual orientation or political opinion.

Martirano, who was hired by the school board to replace Foose last year, is not accused of making homophobic remarks.

In their lawsuit, the chiefs say the school board showed animosity toward Foose and sought to drive her out. Her chiefs say they were then targeted by the board members and suffered “discriminatory, hostile, harassing and abusive behavior.”

Brower found they were refused appointments and barred from meetings, and White was banished to a smaller office.

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

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 county teachers 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.

Her critics on the board said they were elected to rein in a superintendent regarded as both secretive and dictatorial.

The new board passed sweeping measures to assert authority over Foose. She responded by suing the board, but the sides negotiated a settlement. The school board agreed to buy out Foose for $1.65 million.

tprudente@baltsun.com

twitter.com/tim_prudente

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