After weeks of debate and contention, a divided Howard County Board of Education approved a new middle school program of studies Thursday, by a vote of 5-3.
Two weeks ago, the plan stalled when a 4-4 board vote forced school officials to revise a proposal that would set the middle school schedule at a uniform 50-minute, seven-period day and eliminate stand alone reading classes. The proposal is part of a massive curriculum shift placing literacy instruction in each of the schools' content areas.
Board member Brian Meshkin, who had voted against the proposal Jan. 26, voted in favor of the revised proposal, which would require some level of reading instruction for sixth-graders who read at grade level.
Under the final revised plan, students would not have traditional reading classes, but would have the option of taking literacy-based courses, two quarters of which would be required for sixth-graders who did not score "advanced" on the fifth-grade Maryland State Assessment reading exam, and who were not already in reading interventions or seminars.
One of those courses would teach the "nuts and bolts of reading skills," board Chairwoman Sandra French said.
That compromise wasn't enough to convince three of the four members who voted against the proposal two weeks ago, who voted against the proposal Thursday night, citing the elimination of reading.
"I don't see this as a compromise," student member Tomi Williams said. "Two quarters, out of three years of middle school — it doesn't seem like a balanced, compromised position in my opinion."
Beyond the debate over the middle school schedule and reading, another debate arose Thursday over the nature of Meshkin's vote.
Meshkin voted by phone, from California, where his business is located. But before he voted, he told board members he had first been told he would be unable to vote by video or teleconference because that would be a violation of the board's handbook, which states that a board member cannot vote by proxy or in abstentia.
Meshkin had previously stated that if did not see a better compromise on the program of studies, he would again vote against it, again causing a split vote.
Both Mark Blom, the school system's general counsel, and Judith Bresler, the board's attorney, advised French that Meshkin would be legally able to participate and vote during Thursday's meeting, Meshkin said.
The board unanimously voted around 6 p.m. — nearly three hours before discussion on the middle school program of studies began — to allow Meshkin to vote.
Meshkin said he was concerned about the decision.
"My concern is that the only reason I was allowed to vote, was to get me as the fifth vote," he said. "That's conduct unbecoming of board members. ... You don't get to throw a member in the dungeon and let them out when you need a vote."