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Maryland school superintendent Salmon faulted for poor leadership, communication

Maryland State Superintendent of Schools Karen Salmon announces that Maryland's public schools will remain closed for the rest of the school year due to the coronavirus during a news conference on Wednesday, May 6, 2020 in Annapolis, Md. (AP Photo/Brian Witte)
Maryland State Superintendent of Schools Karen Salmon announces that Maryland's public schools will remain closed for the rest of the school year due to the coronavirus during a news conference on Wednesday, May 6, 2020 in Annapolis, Md. (AP Photo/Brian Witte) (Brian Witte/AP)

Maryland School Superintendent Karen Salmon is under fire from education advocates who say she has failed to provide strong leadership during a health crisis that is fundamentally redefining how public schools work.

These critics say that at a time when local school leaders have been dealing with a spate of issues stemming from the coronavirus pandemic, the state should have laid out detailed requirements for them to meet, allowing some local flexibility but not leaving every decision to individual districts.

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They cite as an example Maryland’s written guidance for reopening schools.

“The document is not a plan — it is a compendium of ideas and suggestions,” says Leslie Margolis, a managing attorney with the advocacy group Disability Rights Maryland. She says the document quickly became “kind of irrelevant because every district is moving forward and doing its own thing.”

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The Maryland Education Coalition, representing many advocacy groups, also has blasted Salmon and her department for leaving systems on their own to decide key issues such as whether schools should reopen and, if not, how to ensure that all students get an education during the pandemic.

“We are concerned that [the state education department] continues to shift full responsibility for determining how return … should occur to the local school systems and public agencies,” the coalition said in a letter to the agency.

Salmon, who as state superintendent leads the department, declined to be interviewed for this article.

Traditionally, Maryland has been known for having strong, independent state school superintendents who can act despite the political whims of governors and legislators. Unlike other states where the school superintendent is appointed by the governor, Maryland’s is appointed by the state school board. The board is appointed by the governor, but it can take years before a governor can appoint enough members to control the board.

Former state school superintendent Nancy Grasmick famously survived during the tenure of Gov. Martin O’Malley, who swore to get rid of her.

Maryland Senate President Bill Ferguson says the state education department currently is suffering a vacuum in leadership which has resulted in most school systems in Central Maryland deciding to keep schools online until January. The decision was politically easier, Ferguson says, given that teachers unions were calling for school buildings to stay closed.

But Ferguson, a former teacher, says it wasn’t necessarily the right thing to do for children.

How can we assure kids are learning?” he asked. “In my mind this is an abdication of moral responsibility. This is a moment when people need clear direction.”

Staying open would have required schools to make a lot of difficult, complex decisions with few rules laid out by the state. At a news conference last week, Salmon said she wanted to give school systems flexibility and that if they reopened buildings they should follow CDC guidelines.

Ferguson was among those who has found the department’s advice insufficient. “I believe every Maryland education stakeholder is looking toward the state department to provide clear guidance to reopen in a way that best serves students,” he said.

In a statement, the Maryland State Department of Education defended its record.

“With swift decisions needed as conditions changed rapidly, MSDE has approached these extraordinary circumstances with a focus on partnership — holding lengthy meetings with superintendents at least once weekly on a number of issues and items,” the statement said.

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“How can we assure kids are learning? In my mind this is an abdication of moral responsibility. This is a moment when people need clear direction.”


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State Board of Education members did not respond to questions. The board had intended to hire a new superintendent by July 1, but the hiring was put on hold because of the pandemic and Salmon was given an additional one-year contract.

The state education department has not responded to a request for a copy of the contract, which contains information about her compensation. A Baltimore Sun salary data base developed from state records shows Salmon earned $235,000 last fiscal year.

Maryland’s largest teachers union, the Maryland State Education Association, has said the state’s reopening advice does not address many issues.

“The newly released Maryland reopening plan is lacking in so many areas and punts on too many decisions,” union president Cheryl Bost said in a letter to the state board. For instance, she said, it fails to provide funds for adequate staffing and resources needed to be sure disadvantaged students or students with disabilities get an adequate education.

In another example, the reopening plan details how to clean school buses to keep students healthy, but never mentions that the majority of Baltimore City students ride public transportation, not school buses.

Bost said the plan appears to have been written by various segments of the education department without input from the education community.

She called on the state board to “do better” and to direct the department it oversees.

Margolis says the state should require schools to provide an education for children who may have difficulty learning online — such as young children, students with disabilities and homeless students — even if that means public schools have to do provide small in-person classes or pay someone else to do it.

The Maryland Education Coalition also criticized state education leaders for not placing enough emphasis on making sure that every child has an equal chance at getting a good education. Many children have not had access to computers or the internet and have essentially been locked out of meaningful school. Special education students have been unable to get services to which they are legally entitled.

Some legislators agree, saying that the state has not done enough to ensure equity. Del. Kathy Szeliga, a Republican representing Baltimore and Harford counties, said she believes every school system should make its own decision about reopening.

Yet, she said, she is “extremely concerned about the achievement gap that is widening through this pandemic. I would like to see Karen Salmon be more aggressive in providing” some pressure on local school leaders to make sure that the most vulnerable students, particularly the youngest students, are getting an education.

Del. Brooke Lierman, a Baltimore City Democrat, said in a Facebook post two months ago that Salmon “claims to be leading by giving options, but really there is just no plan; she belittles the needs that parents have for child care; and she communicates as little information as possible.”

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In a recent interview, Lierman said that as a public school parent and an elected official, she has been frustrated “by the lack of focus the governor and state superintendent seem to have on creating conditions that would allow for an eventual safe reopening of schools — especially for our youngest learners and students with special needs.”

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Advocates and local school officials say the state has not communicated well with anyone from parents to district superintendents, and while the state asks for parent, teacher and advocate input it often appears to be ignored.

Local superintendents, who oversee the education of nearly 900,000 Maryland public school children, have been forced to watch Gov. Larry Hogan’s press briefings to find out Salmon’s latest decisions on school openings and closings.

In June, school systems were surprised by an announcement one evening that school buildings could be opened for in-person summer classes almost immediately.

There had been no hint that such a major change in policy was coming.

One high-level school administrator contacted moments after the news conference incredulously asked “What?”

Most school systems in the state had just rolled out their plans for virtual summer lessons.

Salmon also infuriated some parents and child care centers when she closed the centers in March. With no warning, Salmon ordered every licensed child care center in the state to close, giving them just 24 hours notice and leaving parents scrambling for child care.

“All of a sudden, parents were calling and telling their child care providers that the state had just closed child care across the state,” said Chris Peusch, executive director of the Maryland State Child Care Association. “We had no information. No notification from MSDE or the Office of Child Care — certainly no advanced warning. Thousands of parents were asking questions and we had nothing to tell them.”

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