Former school board chairman condemns sitting board and superintendent's 'contempt' for public

Lisa Philip
Contact ReporterHoward County Times
Former Howard school board chairman condemns school officials' 'contempt' for public

An open letter condemning the strained relationship between school officials and the public has caught the attention of parents and county leaders because of its author's perspective as a former school system insider.

Joshua Kaufman, a member and chairman of the Howard County Board of Education from 2003 to 2006, wrote the letter to the current board and Superintendent Renee Foose in response to what he called their "disturbing approach to governing" and their "completely unprecedented alienation" from the citizens of Howard County and "elected officials at the highest level of state office."

"The time for silence is over," he wrote.

His letter has been shared dozens of times on social media and posted on several popular local blogs since its release Monday.

In recent months, parents, educators and county and state elected officials have criticized the school board and Foose for operating without transparency and accountability. The Howard County delegation to the General Assembly recently approved legislation to investigate the school system's denials of public information requests since Foose took office in 2012.

As a member of the board, Kaufman supported creating positions for a school system ombudsman and internal auditor and establishing a citizens operating budget review committee, which the board disbanded in 2014.

"His letter is striking even without that background, but with it, it is crushing," former County Council and school board member Courtney Watson wrote on her Facebook page. Watson served on the school board with Kaufman from 2004 to 2006.

"It's a powerful letter," County Council member Jen Terrasa, a Democrat from District 3, said in an interview. "In this case, he's got this insider perspective and he's saying, 'Look, this is a problem.' It helps to hear from people who were a part of that [system]."

The chairwoman of the board, Christine O'Connor, wrote in an email to the Howard County Times that she is "always happy" to hear from former Board of Education members, but that she disagrees with Kaufman's allegations.

"I wish he would have contacted me for factual information," she wrote. "Many, many citizens feel differently than his opinion."

In an open letter published Thursday in the Howard County Times and on the school system's website, O'Connor defended the board and superintendent against recent criticism, and expressed hope that the community would work with school system leadership "toward excellence for all our students without deteriorating into mean-spirited, highly personal and divisive attacks that undermine our schools and sense of community."

Dozens of citizens, on social media and in interviews with the Times, have supported Kaufman's statements.

"I wholeheartedly agree with Mr. Kaufman's letter," Ellen Kaplan of Columbia wrote in an email to the Times. "I was raised in Howard County (went to Oakland Mills High), taught special education in Howard County, raised my family here and work as a special education advocate for families within Howard County and have never before seen this type of behavior from the Board of Education."

Kaufman wrote that the level of animosity between the board and superintendent and the public is "unacceptable." He cited criticism of the system on the local level, from residents and the county's state legislators, and from Maryland Comptroller Peter Franchot and Gov. Larry Hogan, who said in late January that there is a "palpable loss of trust between many parents and the county school system, and in particular with the superintendent."

"In every case, you have been dismissive of those concerns, showing nothing but contempt for us, the citizens of Howard County," Kaufman wrote. "Perhaps this contempt...is what led to the embarrassing process in which the contract of Dr. Foose was renewed, without any public input or even the ability of dissenting voices within the Board to be heard before a vote. "

The Board of Education voted 5 to 2 to renew Foose's four-year contract without hearing testimony from the public or its members. Board member Cindy Vaillancourt attempted to introduce discussion before the vote, but her motion to do so was voted down by five board members.

In response to criticism of the absence of public input, board chairwoman O'Connor and vice chairwoman Ellen Flynn Giles said that board policy forbids public discussion of personnel issues, including that of the superintendent's contract.

O'Connor and Giles, slong with members Ann De Lacy, Sandra French and Janet Siddiqui voted to reappoint Foose as superintendent because, they said, they believe in her leadership.

In his letter, Kaufman called on Foose to "acknowledge the reality" that she is not the right leader for the county's school system.

"Please do what is best for the school system and children that you claim to serve," he wrote. "I call on you to withdraw your candidacy for superintendent of schools before your new contract takes effect."

Foose's contract takes effect July 1.

Foose responded to a request for comment via school communications director John White.

"Dr. Foose has agreed to the terms of her reappointment and looks forward to working with all members of the community over the next four years," he wrote in an email.

Aside from requesting that Foose step down, Kaufman called on the board to "reinvigorate transparency mechanisms," including the independent auditor, school system ombudsman and citizen budget review committee. He also asked for independent audits of the board's process for renewing Foose's contract, of maintenance conditions in school buildings, and of special education practices in the county.

Kaufman said he expects O'Connor to respond by next week.

This story has been updated.

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