Howard school board chairwoman argues that she’s cognitively disabled to regain benefits

Cynthia Vaillancourt has led the Howard County school board for two years, presiding over meetings, voting on a budget that exceeds $800 million, and recruiting a new superintendent to the district of 76 schools and 55,600 students.

But during her tenure as board chairwoman, Vaillancourt has been trying to convince a court that she has a cognitive disability that causes her to confuse numbers, take wrong notes and suffer muddied thinking.

Can she possibly run the board with such symptoms?

The question lies at the heart of her lawsuit to restore her private disability benefits of $82,000 a year.

Vaillancourt once worked as a project manager for a real estate company in Massachusetts. But while pregnant with her daughter in 1989, she suffered swelling in her brain that she says left her unable to continue that same work. She says she also has been impaired by an advanced case of Lyme Disease. She received disability payments for 26 years.

The 55-year-old Ellicott City woman was elected to the Howard County Board of Education in 2010, and became chairwoman in 2016. Howard County holds nonpartisan elections for school board.

The companies that own and manage her disability policy ended the $6,900 monthly payments in September 2015. Now Vaillancourt is suing the John Hancock Life Insurance Co. and Unum Group Corp. to restore the benefits.

“They look at Cindy and see her perform a part-time job on a school board and think she can do more,” said James Koch, her attorney. “I look at her and say it’s amazing she does what she does.”

An attorney for the insurance companies declined to comment on the lawsuit. But the attorney, Bryan Bolton, has defended the cancellation in court, presenting thousands of pages of school board emails, reports and meetings minutes in an effort to show that Vaillancourt has taken on a rigorous workload.

Bolton pressed Vaillancourt to explain how she could claim such a disability while hashing out legal issues with board attorneys, fielding questions from news reporters, and voting to spend money on school construction projects.

“Did you feel like you had a sufficient understanding of the capital budget?” he asked during a civil trial in January.

“Yes,” she said. “For my purposes, I say those look like worthy projects. I don’t parse the numbers on what the staff has determined is what’s necessary.”­

The first trial ended in a mistrial in January, when a Howard County jury deadlocked over whether Vaillancourt was totally disabled and the payments should be restored. The sides are now in mediation. If they fail to reach an agreement, they’re scheduled to return to court for a new trial in August.

Vaillancourt emerged to lead a new majority on the school board early last year. The board passed sweeping measures to assert its authority over the controversial then-superintendent Renee Foose.

Foose answered by suing the school board. The veteran administrator accused the board of micromanaging her; the new majority saw their election victory as a message from voters to rein her in. The sides were locked in a contentious power struggle for months.

Finally, the board agreed to pay Foose nearly $1.65 million in salary and benefits to buy out the three years that remained on her contract. The payments, to be made through 2020, exceed what it would have cost to keep Foose through the end of the contract.

Still, the feud marred the image of a system that consistently ranks among the strongest in the nation.

Vaillancourt’s lawsuit offered a glimpse behind the scenes of last year’s dispute. She told the court she used a private email account because the administration “rifled through” her board email. She said the board considered hiring its own spokesman or woman to counter a public relations campaign waged by Foose.

But the seven-day trial centered on her claims of disability and her duties on the school board.

Vaillancourt bought the private disability insurance policy while working as a project manager for a real estate development company in Massachusetts. It was to protect her in the event she could no longer continue in that job.

Vaillancourt says the brain swelling and the Lyme disease caused her permanent cognitive impairment. John Hancock found her totally disabled and unable to continue working. She received her first monthly check in October 1989.

Since then, she says, she has suffered fatigue, headaches and pains. She had open heart surgery and several stents in recent years. She says her memory has declined, leaving her unable to juggle projects or perform basic calculations.

In court, she spoke of overpaying her credit card bill and ordering floors for her basement incorrectly.

“I have a lot of issues with transposing numbers,” she told The Baltimore Sun. “I don’t put myself in a position where board business is relying on my ability to write a number down correctly.”

Vaillancourt, who is paid $17,000 to chair the school board, downplays the demands of the part-time job. She says the work usually amounts to 10 hours a week. She says the board members merely make commonsense decisions based on reports from the administration.

“Anybody being concerned that I will make a complex financial decision, they don’t need to worry,” she told The Sun, “because I’m one of seven.”

Vaillancourt says she has developed an approach that helps her do the job. She takes long naps before board meetings, she says, and relies on the advice of the staff. She says she ran for chairwoman in part because the board chair is not responsible for a cluster of schools, as are other board members.

During one long meeting, she told The Sun, she passed out.

Vaillancourt says some people think the board runs the school district.

“The board of education does not run the school system; the superintendent does,” she said. “The insurance company thinks they can really spin something out of this because there’s this idea of an elected official.”

After Foose departed, Vaillancourt and the board hired Michael Martirano, a former state superintendent of schools in West Virginia, to lead the district. Martirano declined to comment on her lawsuit.

Other members of the school board did not return messages seeking comment.

Vaillancourt says she notified Unum when she was elected to the school board. The payments were cut off five years later. She says she doesn’t know why.

Critics say Unum encourages agents to deny claims and stop recurring payments. In 2004, the company agreed to pay $15 million to settle with regulators from 48 states investigating allegedly unfair claims practices. The company also agreed to review more than 230,000 denied claims and reform its practices.

Unum spokeswoman Mary Fortune declined to comment on Vaillancourt’s lawsuit. But she noted the company processed more than 620,500 new claims last year and paid $5.8 billion in benefits in the U.S. Some 85 percent of new disability claims were paid and approved, she said.

Ana Senior, a spokeswoman for John Hancock, also declined to comment on Vaillancourt’s lawsuit.

In court, Bolton asked if Vaillancourt told voters of her disability.

“Was there any disclosure anywhere?” he asked.

“No,” she said, “my personal health is my personal business.”

tprudente@baltsun.com

twitter.com/tim_prudente

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