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Deadlocked a year ago, Baltimore County’s school board will once again vote on leadership

The Baltimore County school board will consider this week who among their 12-person panel should lead as the system grapples with dual crises caused by the COVID-19 pandemic and a devastating ransomware attack.

Maryland school boards are required to elect a chair and vice chair at their first meeting in December each year, which falls on Tuesday for Baltimore County’s board of education. Deliberations over who should assume the leadership positions typically occur in private, followed by a pro-forma public vote.

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Last year, board member Cheryl Pasteur vied for the chair position against then-chair Kathleen Causey. The school board spent more than five hours behind closed doors trying to elect its leaders before declaring a deadlock.

Because no candidate for chair could secure the seven votes needed to declare victory, the incumbent chairman — Causey — retained the position with just five votes. Pasteur received the remaining six votes, with one seat on the panel vacant at the time. Julie Henn was selected to serve as vice chair of the board.

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Causey, Pasteur and Henn did not respond to requests for comment Monday.

In April, Gov. Larry Hogan appointed University of Maryland School of Medicine professor Erin Hagen to the board, completing the board’s membership.

In Baltimore County, the board of education chairperson typically presides over meetings, develops agendas with the superintendent, assigns members of the board to various committees and ensures the superintendent is evaluated annually. The chair also serves as a spokesperson for the board.

The board’s handbook says “the role of the Board Chair is one of facilitating the board’s work, not directing it.”

Although the positions of chair and vice chair are largely symbolic, they can hint to where the board’s top priorities rest.

The school system is confronted with addressing inequity as demographics have shifted from a nearly all-white district 30 years ago to one where a majority of students are Black, Hispanic or Asian. In addition, about half of all students qualify for free or reduced-price school meals — often a data point used to determine the relative wealth of a district’s student body. Baltimore County students called on the school system to root out systemic racism following the nationwide protests that erupted over the death of George Floyd, including diversifying the school district’s curriculum and staff and evaluating the effects of school district discipline policies.

And as 2020 comes to a close, board members face several more challenges, including a global pandemic that has shuttered all Baltimore County schools since the spring. The board’s debate over how best to reopen schools dragged on during the summer and fall, when case counts were lower and neighboring school systems moved to hybrid learning models or reopened schools for their neediest students.

In the weeks leading up to Thanksgiving, board members pressed Baltimore County school administrators to release a plan for returning children to school buildings by the end of November.

Those conversations were soon eclipsed by a devastating ransomware attack that crippled the school system the day before Thanksgiving. Ransomware attacks typically block access to a computer system or files until the victim pays a sum of money, which experts say can top millions of dollars.

Since the attack hit two weeks ago, many parents and employees have worried about the security of the vast personal data stored by the school system. The ransomware also caused the cancellation of three school days for students. All classes have since resumed.

Baltimore Sun reporter Liz Bowie contributed to this article.

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