Complaints alleging the Howard County school system's lack of openness and responsiveness to parents and educators dominated an education-focused town hall meeting hosted by elected officials on Tuesday night.
"A lack of transparency, principals being lap dogs to administration, board members being too cozy with superintendent...it all smells," said parent Sue Faustino. "And that smell is not mold."
Faustino's comments, which referred to school system's highly criticized handling of mold growth in several of the county's schools, were met with a standing ovation from almost half of the audience.
Citing concerns about how central office makes policy decisions, parent David Yungmann said that, in recent years, school system leadership has grown "increasingly arrogant."
"They have been operating with an attitude of, we are very important people doing very important things, and you are common folk and you wouldn't understand," he said. "They want to operate in secrecy. They're paranoid."
Leslie Kornreich, who has a son with autism at Howard High School, said, "Despite the tireless work of educators, we are going backwards in terms of class sizes, and transparency, accountability."
She pointed out Superintendent Renee Foose's suspension in 2014 of the Operating Budget Review Committee, "the only opportunity for the public to have input in the operating budget."
"There is no oversight over the way that the Howard County Public School System spends money," she said. "We have a long way to go before the school system is world-class."
Several parents said that the school system's lack of accountability is reinforced by the inability of educators to voice their opinions for fear of losing their jobs.
"If the administration is not being responsible for the safety of our children," Faustino said, "why aren't teachers allowed to speak up?"
"In Howard County, it has become them and us," said parent Ann Faust. "And this can't be good for anybody. Teachers are scared to talk to parents."
In response to these statements, retired Howard County educator Marijane Monck stepped up to the microphone for less than 30 seconds to say, "Yes, teachers are afraid to speak out."
Her words were met with cheers.
A common thread running throughout the various parent statements, which took issue with the school system's handling of everything from special education to bullying to staffing, was the call for a change in school system leadership.
"The time has come for new system leadership before the school system is damaged for good," said parent Christine McComas.
Lisa Markovitz, another parent, echoed McComas's statement, adding that there are good things happening in the county's schools, but that they are happening "in spite of leadership problems."
Tuesday's forum was held by Del. Frank Turner, a Columbia democrat, and Del. Warren Miller, a Republican from western Howard County, in the midst of growing parent criticism of the school board and superintendent.
Some parents have taken to social media to air their concerns using the hashtag #cutfooseloose; Superintendent Foose's four-year contract is up for renewal in the spring. The four-year terms of school board members Janet Siddiqui, Ann De Lacy and vice chairwoman Ellen Flynn Giles will expire next year, leaving three openings to be voted on during the 2016 election cycle.
County Council Chairman Calvin Ball, County Councilwoman Jen Terrasa, delegates Vanessa Atterbeary and Clarence Lam and state Sen. Guy Guzzone joined Turner and Miller at the meeting to listen to public testimony.
Christina Delmont-Smalls, former president of the PTA Council of Howard County, and Courtney Watson, former county councilwoman and a former school board member, moderated the forum.
In response to parent criticism at the town hall, Howard schools' communications director John White wrote in an email, "There were several school system staff members in attendance to listen to the community members' comments.
"We know the community has high expectations for its in high-achieving school system," he wrote. "We will consider ways to increase communication and further strengthen public confidence in the system that has served the county well."
White attended the meeting along with school system officials Frank Eastham and Bruce Gist. School board members Cindy Vaillancourt, Sandie French and Bess Altwerger and board chairwoman Christine O'Connor and vice chairwoman Ellen Flynn Giles were also in attendance.
After the meeting, which took place at Howard Community College, Turner said that he hoped school administrators would "hear the community's stories and be more in tune and sensitive in responding to their constituents."
"What are we going to do from here? We need to go back and talk to other people," Turner told the audience at the end of citizen input, which he and Miller said they would share with school officials. "The delegation is getting ready to go to Annapolis and we won't get back until April. It's going to be up to you to move forward, to make sure that the board and the superintendent are responsive to you."
Turner and Miller are part of the group of delegates and senators that represent the county to the Maryland General Assembly, whose 2016 legislative session will run from Jan. 13 to April 11.
"I hope that's a message that we can take away," Turner added. "That they have to be responsive to our community, because it's our children and that's the most important thing we do in life, is to take care of and protect our children."
Last week the Howard County Delegation hosted a public hearing on local legislation — discussion about two bills related to local schools took up much of the forum. One would change the way that the school board is elected and the other would make it more difficult for the school system to turn down public information requests.
Parents and administrators who spoke at last week's forum had varying opinions on both pieces of legislation, especially about changing school board elections.
"The bill regarding the election of Howard County Board of Education members would undermine the education of the 53,000 students in our system," Superintendent Renee Foose told state delegation members.
"Electing our Board of Education by district will offer better and more complete representation for voters of Howard County," said Leslie Kornreich, of Hanover. "It is the purest definition of representative democracy."