Election could shake up Howard's school board

Unhappy parents, teachers and education activists are pushing to put new faces on the Howard County school board in Tuesday's election.

Howard's schools have long enjoyed a reputation as among Maryland's best, but critics say board members and the superintendent too often act without public input and don't listen to community concerns.


Six candidates are running for three open seats on the seven-member board. With just one incumbent still in the running — two others were knocked out in the primary — the school board is guaranteed at least two new faces.

"It's been a very contentious race because it's a referendum, of course, on the current superintendent and board majority. There's a huge voter, parent, community and educator dissatisfaction with that group," said Paul Lemle, president of the Howard County Education Association, the county's teacher union.


The school board race has drawn more interest than usual, with social media campaigns, signs dotting roadsides and candidates making a last-minute push at early voting sites. Lemle said he has 400 teachers volunteering to campaign for the union's favored candidates — all challengers — which is quadruple the number of volunteers he normally gets.

"That doesn't happen," Lemle said. "Teachers don't want to fight their board of education. They want to teach kids, and the board of education has been in the way of that."

Critics of the system cite a number of complaints. They say officials were slow to acknowledge and fix a mold problem at Glenwood Middle School and that public information requests go unfulfilled. They also note that there was no public discussion before the board voted in February to give Superintendent Renee A. Foose a new four-year, $273,000-a-year contract and that positions for classroom assistants were cut and class sizes increased.

Foose declined to comment for this article. Her spokesman, John White, said Foose "looks forward to working together with the board in the best interests of all students now and in the future."

Janet Siddiqui, a pediatrician from Clarksville and the lone incumbent seeking to remain on the board, disagrees with critics who argue the board has not been independent enough from Foose. But she said she agrees there is room to improve communication between the system and its parents and teachers.

"We have a great school system and it didn't get there by accident," she said. "It got there by working with a great community, a great county government, great parents, great teachers and students. We need to continue to hear the voices of all those people."

Lisa Markovitz, a local activist who became involved in the school board election through her civic group and political action committee, the People's Voice, is backing four of the challengers in the general election.

"They are all about transparency," Markovitz said of the challengers. "They're all about responsiveness. They're all about putting money in the classroom."

The concerns expressed by critics have drawn the attention of other elected officials.

A bipartisan group of state lawmakers got a bill passed requiring the state's public information ombudsman to investigate the Howard school system's handling of information requests. The report is due by the end of the year.

County Executive Allan H. Kittleman, a Republican, and the County Council declined to fund the school system's full budget request, and the council is conducting its own financial audit of the school system. Council members are considering asking the Maryland State Department of Education to conduct a performance audit of county schools.

"There have just been numerous concerns, and it is our duty to continue to advocate and fight for our children and our families," said Council Chairman Calvin Ball, a Columbia Democrat.


A state audit released in October found Howard school officials awarded salaries for administrators without school board approval, awarded no-bid contracts without proper justification and made mileage payments to employees without documentation of the travel. The school system's internal auditor defended the practices and criticized the expertise of the state auditors.

Even Gov. Larry Hogan has weighed in, grilling Foose over the Glenwood mold issue at a Board of Public Works meeting and saying, "There's a palpable loss of trust between many parents and the county school system, and in particular with the superintendent."

Challengers are staking their campaigns on themes of openness and the need to rebuild trust.

Kirsten Coombs, a Columbia parent and the top vote-getter in the primary, said the current board too often approves contracts and makes financial decisions without having information they need from the superintendent's office,

"People are very worried about the reputation of our system," she said. "It's an embarrassment for us."

Vicky Cutroneo, a parent of three who is also a challenger, said she got involved with the mold issue and became frustrated with a lack of communication from officials.

"It turned into much more than mold for me," she said. She believes the current board has affected "the culture of the way we do business in the school system."

Christina Delmont-Small, a challenger and a former president of the countywide PTA, said she became frustrated when she served on a budget oversight committee. The school system wouldn't provide basic information on past spending, she said.

"Here in Howard County we love education and we love our schools and that's well and great, but not if the Board of Education doesn't do its fiduciary responsibility with taxpayer dollars," said Delmont-Small, an Ellicott City parent of a fifth-grader and a ninth-grader.

Candidate Mavis Ellis of Columbia, who works as a pupil personnel worker in Montgomery County, also says the board needs better information from the superintendent's office. "That information should also be shared with our community," she said.

The fifth challenger, retired band teacher Robert Wayne Miller of Columbia, said regardless of who is elected, board members need to direct the superintendent instead of "being directed by her."

"A lot of the public, and also other government officials, do not trust the board," Miller said.

Siddiqui, whose three children graduated from Atholton High School in Columbia, said she's focused on priorities such as eliminating the achievement gap, expanding wellness programs, updating anti-bullying policies and implementing later start times for middle and high school students.

"I try to work collaboratively with board members and I try to make reasonable decisions, and do the very best for our students," she said.

Baltimore Sun Media Group reporters Fatimah Waseem and Andrew Michaels contributed to this article.



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