Howard County educators' confidence in the Board of Education and the superintendent has dropped significantly in the last year, according to the results of the Howard County Education Association's annual survey.
Last year, 77 percent of survey-takers said they were confident in the board; this year, it's only 60 percent.
Confidence in Superintendent Sydney Cousin took a slightly less dramatic drop, from 80 percent to 67 percent.
The current dissatisfaction could stem from several issues, union President Paul Lemle said.
"With Dr. Cousin being sick (Cousin was on medical leave for four months in early 2011), and stepping away from most of his duties and delegating them to (Deputy Superintendent Mamie Perkins), that makes people question the leadership, even if it is still there," Lemle said. "The board has gone through all the infighting and controversial stuff with (board member Allen) Dyer, too."
The board voted in June 2011 to request the State Board of Education remove Dyer from his seat, on charges of misconduct. That case is currently before the Office of Administrative Hearings.
Also, Lemle noted, when the survey was conducted earlier this year the board and central office staff were in the midst of a contentious debate on overhauling the middle school schedule and eliminating traditional reading classes. Teachers repeatedly denounced the proposed changes, but in spite of the opposition, the boardapproved the changes.
With the appointment of Renee Foose as the next superintendent starting July 1 and with at least one new board member coming on after the November general election, the confidence level might rise next year as the system experiences a "honeymoon period," Lemle said.
Board Chairwoman Sandra French said the dip in confidence did not surprise her, given the many issues affecting teachers over the past few months. Besides those mentioned by Lemle, she said, were worries about the state passing the cost of teacher pensions on to the counties, which would require some local budget cuts.
"You combine all those, I would understand there's a drop" in confidence, French said. "Anybody who's worried abut the future of their job, I would feel the same way."
French said the board will "do our best" to allay teachers' concerns about their stability. "The board should work hard to get that confidence back up to 80 percent — or 85 or 90."
The annual survey was sent to about 8,000 employees. Fewer than half sent back a completed survey by the deadline in early February.
Teacher morale dipped slightly from last year, the survey found, and was lowest in middle schools. Compared with educators at the elementary school and high school level, where 73 and 74 percent respectively reported that morale at their school was good, only 59 percent of middle school educator reported good morale.
Middle schools, in fact, consistently ranked the lowest in terms of educators feeling successful in their work, being treated as a professional and being able to speak openly about issues without fear of repercussions. Middle school educators also reported the lowest satisfaction rates with the Board of Education (45 percent) and the superintendent (51 percent).
Lemle said there was probably a direct correlation between the middle school dissatisfaction and the board debate and vote on the middle school changes.
"During that time, you had central office staff reporting to the board that the middle schools were broken, and they needed fixed," Lemle said. "The bottom line message was that the middle schools aren't working, and you can see that reflected in every single question (from the middle schools). Morale went down."
Overall, educators feel successful in their work, according to the survey (89 percent), and most (84 percent) say administrators respect their negotiated contracts. Eighty-six percent said their work is evaluated fairly and 85 percent said their work environment is conducive to success. Those numbers were only slightly changed from last year.
"It's important not to take this survey as the be-all and end-all," Lemle said. "It's an indicator of where we need to work to make a school a better place for the employee, and in turn, for the student. ... Any educator who has the tools and the resources they need, in a good environment, will produce better results with their students."
Staff writer Pete Pichaske contributed to this report.