Foose eliminates in-house attorneys for schools

As part of new Superintendent Renee Foose's continuing realignment of the Howard County schools' central office, the school system will no longer have in-house legal counsel.

"The model's not functioning as it was originally designed," Foose told the county Board of Education at a meeting last week. "We're shifting to a more reliant outside counsel model for all legal matters. The exclusive use of outside counsel is in the best interest of the school system to avoid conflicts of interest, or the perception of conflicts of interest."

Effective Oct. 1, all in-house legal counsel positions in central office will be eliminated, and General Counsel Mark Blom and Staff Attorney Dan Furman will no longer be with the school system.

The position of legislative specialist — currently held by Kim Clare — is being moved under Chief of Staff Sue Mascaro. Clare has indicated plans to retire Oct. 1, schools spokeswoman Rebecca Amani-Dove said, so Clare's position will "be reviewed and possibly redefined."

In a memo sent to staff Wednesday, Foose said the "exclusive use of outside counsel ensures that administrative decision are made" by school administrators, both at the school and central office level, and that resources are "spent on legal services only in those matters in which the services of a lawyer are required."

Now, Foose said in her memo, legal oversight and decisions will be coordinated by the executive team: Chief Accountability Officer Elizabeth Grace Chesney, Chief of Staff Sue Mascaro, Deputy Superintendent of Operations Ray Brown, and new Deputy Superintendent for Curriculum, Instruction and Administration Linda Wise, formerly chief academic officer. Wise's title change is effective Oct. 1.

Chesney, Mascaro, Wise and Brown will "monitor the cost of major cases, discuss any settlement opportunities, look for ways to utilize legal services in the most efficient and cost-effective way, while identifying system-wide issues that may warrant additional guidance to staff," the memo read.

Blom has worked for the school system since 1998. Furman has worked for the school system since 2009, first as a temporary employee, then permanently since 2011. A 2002 graduate of Wilde Lake High School, Furman was the student member of the Board of Education from 2001-2002.

Furman could not immediately be reached for comment. When reached at his home, Blom declined to comment on Foose's decision but took issue with an online comment about the decision posted the Yahoo! group, howardpubliced.

Board of Education member Allen Dyer had written on the message board that the decision to use outside counsel "will ensure that administrative decisions are made by administrators at the local and central office levels, rather than relying on a decision by an in-house lawyer."

That perception, Blom said, "is completely inaccurate" and "shows a lack of understanding of my position and how I worked with administrators.

"I think I gave (school administrators) a lot of good judgments, but they made the decisions," Blom said.

Dyer and Blom have often been at odds over legal actions filed by Dyer against the board and school system.

Over the years, Blom said about his work, he "empowered" administrators by giving them legal information.

"Not just legal information, but based on (nearly) 15 years in Howard County, the information around procedures, practices that were out there, the good school practices I had learned over the years, and judgments based on being an in-house counsel in Maryland for 23 years," Blom said.

Prior to working in Howard County, Blom was in-house counsel and an assistant superintendent in Frederick County.

Blom said his motivation was always "helping those in the schools who have the most important and toughest jobs.

"I felt I was doing that and it was very rewarding," Blom said. "That's extremely gratifying."

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