A symbolic fight over who will lead the Baltimore County school board has paralyzed the leadership of the nation’s 25th largest school district just as the district attempts to turn around declining academic performance and forge a clear plan for moving forward.
Last month, the school board spent more than five hours behind closed doors trying to elect a new chair and vice chair until finally emerging to say members were deadlocked. The board’s attorney said the status quo stands because currently no member can get the seven votes needed to declare victory.
Kathleen Causey will remain chair of the 12-member board, even though board member Cheryl Pasteur received six votes for the job while Causey got five. One seat on the panel is vacant after board member Roger Hayden died in October.
Maryland school boards are required to elect new leadership at their first meeting in December each year. Baltimore County’s fight, some political and education observers say, is about many other issues than who leads the school board.
It is a fight over whether the board’s top priorities should represent the interests of primarily low-income and minority students in the northwestern section of the county or the concerns of students in wealthier areas. Should the focus be on making sure every child reads at grade level or building new school facilities?
The disagreements reveal tensions that have developed in a county where the demographics have shifted from a nearly all-white school system 30 years ago to one whose students are poorer and more diverse.
“I think there is a definite resistance to a changing Baltimore County in a school system that is increasingly diverse — and what that must mean for instruction, what that must mean for approaches and what that must mean for accountability,” said Don Mohler, a former county executive and principal. While some people want to embrace the new diversity as a strength, Mohler said, “there appear to be some board members who are uncomfortable with that diversity and want to turn the clock back.”
The school system is now majority black, Hispanic and Asian, and about half the students qualify for free or reduced-price meals. Of the 11 people now on the board, just three are black, including the student member, and one is Hispanic.
Causey, vice chair Julie Henn and some who support them are more conservative than the rest of the board.
Causey, who is white, represents the northern Hereford area, which is full of farms and large suburban houses and is predominantly white. Pasteur, who is black, is a former principal from the western side of the county, which is majority black with a growing immigrant population.
Defenders of Causey and Henn see them as willing to question the status quo and upend some of the policies of a corrupt former superintendent, Dallas Dance, who went to jail after pleading guilty to four counts of perjury.
Causey and Henn also got support from education advocates for helping to scale back the expensive program that provided a laptop for each student in the school system and drained away some resources for classrooms and schools.
When they were first appointed to the board by Republican Gov. Larry Hogan, the two joined board member Ann Miller as a vocal minority on the panel that tried to prevent some board actions. The tension exploded when the three fought hard to block a popular county educator, Verletta White, from becoming the permanent superintendent.
When the majority of the board voted — twice — to make her superintendent anyway, Causey, Henn and Miller made a case to the Maryland state superintendent, Karen Salmon, that White should not be appointed. They won.
Most of the board was elected a year ago, and there were fewer contentious meetings after White left in June. Since a new superintendent, Darryl Williams, arrived July 1, meetings have been shorter.
Causey would not discuss the reason for the divisions over who would lead the board. Those discussions are private, she said. She said she doesn’t believe there are philosophical differences on the board, and emphasized thatmembers are united on many issues.
“We have many dedicated individuals and a lot of longtime leaders on the board,” she said. “After an accomplished inaugural year, we have board members who are interested in contributing in other ways." Causey responded to questions sent to her and to Henn, who deferred to the board chair.
Though Pasteur received more votes, Causey said she would not give up her leadership role. Causey said she and Henn “have the institutional knowledge, and so in this first year [for the superintendent], we believe the continuity of leadership will help the school system.”
Pasteur said her push to become the leader stem from her priorities for the school system.
“Time is up for all of the children in the system. All of the children regardless of side of the county need to have a quality education,” she said.
Pasteur, a school administrator before she retired, wants to focus on improving instruction before some other issues, including air-conditioning, transportation and school buildings, that have taken up a large portion of the board’s debates. While she said those issues should not be ignored, “there has to be some real courageous conversations about instruction.” Test scores in the county have been on the decline, even as surrounding districts have seen a rise.
Baltimore County math scores took a nosedive, with a nearly 4 point drop in the percentage of students passing state tests from 2018 to 2019. Overall, only 26.5% of students passed the math test in elementary and middle school last spring.
The now open division between the two sides on the board indicates that differences may have festered.
Board member Moalie Jose complained in an email to Causey that the chairwoman was too controlling in handing out assignments on board committees, giving leadership roles to her supporters and not some of the new members.
On social media, Pasteur was derided by Causey’s supporters for backing White to be the next superintendent and later voting against Darryl Williams. Pasteur said she now supports him “100%."
“We are so on the same page about where the system needs to go," Pasteur said.
There were also attempts to — falsely — connect Pasteur to Dance. On Facebook, one parent posted an announcement that MindRocket Media, which advises education companies, had hired Dance. The company, the post incorrectly said, was owned by former superintendent Stuart Berger’s son.
“Didn’t Cheryl Pasteur work in BCPS under Berger? I’m fairly certain I’ve heard her say she’s been tight with Berger,” the poster said. “I can’t be the only one who thinks this solidifies that the stink of Dance’s administration is still upon us. Through Pasteur.”
Berger, who was superintendent in the 1990s, laughed when he heard what had been said on social media. His son is an attorney in Australia and has no affiliation with the company, he said.
Mohler believes the divisions on the board make it more difficult for Williams to lead the school system.
Williams said he has received the full support of the board. “I know there may have been some excitement [about the vote over the chair], but in no way did that cost my relationship with individual board members” or the entire board, he said.
It is unusual for a school board to have such a protracted argument over leadership, said Stephen Bounds, director of legal and policy service for the Maryland Association of Boards of Education.
The chair and vice chair have ceremonial and public relations roles, Bounds said, but they cannot wield much more power than other board members. A board chair has only one vote and can set the agenda for the meetings, but that agenda is voted on by the entire board.