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Howard County Board of Education agrees to $600,000 settlement in discrimination, harassment lawsuit

Howard County School Board Chair Mavis Ellis insists that the district did nothing wrong in its dealings with deputies of former Superintendent Renee Foose, despite the board paying them a $600,000 settlement and an outside investigation's conclusion that the workers were harassed.
Howard County School Board Chair Mavis Ellis insists that the district did nothing wrong in its dealings with deputies of former Superintendent Renee Foose, despite the board paying them a $600,000 settlement and an outside investigation's conclusion that the workers were harassed. (Jen Rynda / Baltimore Sun Media Group)

The Howard County Board of Education has agreed to pay nearly $600,000 to settle complaints that a former board discriminated against employees who are gay, board members made homophobic remarks, and that its superintendent retaliated against his predecessor’s deputies.

The board agreed to pay $226,000 to Elizabeth Grace Chesney, the former chief accountability officer; $72,500 to Tim Thornburg, the former director of staff relations; $115,000 to John White, the former schools spokesperson; as well as $185,000 to their attorneys.

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The payments are listed in a settlement agreement signed earlier this year by current school board Chair Mavis Ellis and obtained recently by The Baltimore Sun with a Maryland Public Information Act request.

Under the terms, Chesney, Thornburg and White agreed to drop their discrimination lawsuit before it reached a jury trial in Howard County Circuit Court. They also promised to refrain from any comments that could be perceived as disparaging to the school board. The three and their attorney declined to comment for this article.

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The school board admits no wrongdoing despite the settlement. Ellis said that decision was made not by the school board but its insurance provider.

“The Board of Education continues to deny the allegations and were prepared to present the case to a jury, but are pleased that this prolonged process has concluded,” Ellis wrote in an email.

The settlement continues fallout from a hostile changing-of-the-guard that gripped the high-achieving school district three years ago. The payments raise to $2.2 million the costs to drive out former superintendent Renee Foose and her three deputies.

“The BOE [Board of Education] engaged in behavior which a reasonable person would perceive as intimidating, ridiculing, demeaning, and which threatened, and actually induced, a sense of fear in central office staff.”


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An experienced administrator, Foose was broadly welcomed when she became the first female superintendent of Howard County schools in 2012. But her relationship with the teachers union and school board soured.

She was sharply criticized over her handling of mold at Glenwood Middle School. Critics say she delayed telling parents and teachers about the mold, putting the school at risk. They circulated a petition to “Cut Foose Loose.”

In 2016, the county teachers union backed new candidates for the board who ran on a pledge to push Foose out. Three were elected, tipping the majority of the seven-member board against the superintendent. The new members said they were elected to rein in a superintendent regarded by critics as both secretive and dictatorial.

The new board passed sweeping measures to assert its authority over her. Foose took the rare step of suing her own board.

The two sides were locked in an escalating power struggle. Then the board agreed to pay Foose $1.65 million in salary and benefits — amounting to a bonus over her contract — for the superintendent to step down. She resigned in May 2017; her payments were to continue through this year.

The school board hired Michael Martirano from West Virginia at an initial $270,000 a year. He declined to comment for this article.

After Foose left, her deputies Chesney, Thornburg and White continued to work for the school district. In their lawsuit, the three alleged they were harassed and discriminated against by the same board members who had fought Foose.

An 11-month investigation by the Howard County Office of Human Rights found reasonable cause to believe the discrimination occurred. The investigator, Cheryl Brower, wrote in her report that Chesney, Thornburg and White were targeted for supporting Foose. Also, Chesney and Thornburg were targeted for being gay, Brower wrote. She noted evidence that two school board members uttered homophobic remarks.

“The BOE [Board of Education] engaged in behavior which a reasonable person would perceive as intimidating, ridiculing, demeaning, and which threatened, and actually induced, a sense of fear in central office staff,” Brower wrote.

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In their lawsuit, they accused former board chair Cynthia Vaillancourt and current board member Christina Delmont-Small of homophobic remarks.

“Ms. Vaillancourt stated that Central Office was overrun by ‘them,’ referring to Dr. Foose, Ms. Chesney and Mr. Thornburg and their sexual orientations,” they allege in the lawsuit. “She also stated that Mr. White was ‘light in the loafers’ and made a comment about whether Dr. Foose and Ms. Chesney were in a personal relationship.”

School board members vehemently denied the allegations. Vaillancourt, who served two terms on the board, has called the human rights investigation a “disgusting hatchet-job.”

The lawsuit proceeded for nearly a year and a half, and caused attorneys to depose members of the school board and staff. School district administrator Danielle Lueking denied a request from The Sun for those depositions under the Public Information Act, saying they contain personnel matters and are exempt from disclosure.

The money for the nearly $600,000 settlement comes not from tax dollars, but the school board’s insurance policy through the nonprofit Maryland Association Boards of Education or MABE. Howard County and 17 other small- to mid-sized school districts pool their insurance coverage to reduce costs. Districts pay an annual premium to MABE that’s affected by any judgments in the previous year. Ellis said MABE chose to settle.

Steven James, the administrator of the insurance pool, declined to comment. So it remains unknown how the settlement will affect the school district’s insurance premium next year. In fiscal year 2020, the school board budgeted nearly $1.8 million for the insurance policy.

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