Howard County school board torn by dissent

Howard County's school board had ended its public hearing on a new elementary in Elkridge and moved onto discussing the matter — a seemingly routine meeting for the group that governs one of the nation's best school systems.

But when some area residents sought to ask more questions about the school's proposed site, they were told to wait until the meeting ended — and board member Allen Dyer wasn't satisfied. He went into the audience and sat down with the residents three times, returning to his seat with a list of questions that he addressed to the board.

That episode last week was the latest confrontation in a running battle between Dyer and other members of the board. His actions, which include lawsuits against the board, have led colleagues to take the unusual step of seeking to remove him.

As the infighting continues, public opinion appears split. Some in the county view Dyer, who was elected to the board, as a champion of the public's interests, while others wonder whether the controversy might harm the school system's image.

"Public education in Howard County is the driving force behind our quality of life," said County Executive Ken Ulman. "When I see this sort of dysfunctional nature of the current board, and when a board member is constantly suing the board and running up fees in the process, it is a concern."

At the center of the controversy is Dyer, a 64-year-old attorney from Seattle who said that he got his first taste of law and the school system in high school — when he published an unsanctioned newsletter objecting to the way his school was governed, prompting the administration to have him transferred.

A group of classmates, he said, hired a civil liberties attorney for him, and he ultimately was reinstated to his original school. Dyer said that the attorney did what he as an average citizen could not, and he sees himself as someone who must similarly speak out for citizens.

Beyond challenging the board on compliance with the state Open Meetings Act, and insisting that it should preserve all documents of board transactions, Dyer says the board is prone to "rubber stamp" policies. He has scoffed at a County Council suggestion that he cease filing lawsuits against the board, saying that he will do so only when he believes the board is complying with transparency statutes.

Dyer said the board's push to remove him is an effort to persuade county residents not to support him in the next election. His term expires in 2012.

"There is a real risk that I will be removed, and that would make the board majority very happy because they would gain a rubber-stamp appointee," said Dyer. "But the ultimate goal of the board majority is to prevent my reelection, and the impeachment is a great way for them to smear me."

In its formal request to the state board of education to remove Dyer, the board accused him of repeatedly breaching confidentiality; undermining the function of the board; using his position to threaten, bully or embarrass other board members and school staff; and spurning less divisive and less costly methods of resolving disputes in favor of litigation.

State Department of Education spokesman William Reinhard said Monday that the state board has transferred the case to the state office of administrative hearings, where an administrative law judge will hear the case.

"If either Mr. Dyer or the local board has issues with the [administrative law judge's] decision, it can be sent to the State Board for further consideration," said Reinhard. Officials at the office of administrative hearings said Monday that the hearing has yet to be scheduled.

Ulman, who would appoint an interim board member if Dyer is removed, said he supports the board's request to remove Dyer.

The county says it has spent more than $400,000 to fight cases brought by Dyer, including suits he filed before he was elected in 2008.

Board chair Janet Siddiqui said tensions on the board make it challenging to set and move forward with agenda items.

"Mr. Dyer is an elected official and I respect that, but his conduct since he's come on the board has not been a benefit for the children of Howard County and the taxpayer," she said. "He disrespects the vote of the majority of the board. And several other areas of misconduct will be forthcoming at the hearing."

As Dyer raised the questions at Thursday's board meeting, the tension among board members was apparent. Siddiqui objected, saying that his practices were disruptive to the board.

After the meeting ended, and most of the audience and school system staff had left the board room, Dyer raised the matter with Siddiqui, saying that when the board sought to remove him from its ranks "you gave up any right to compromise."

"You are still a board member," Siddiqui said, adding that Dyer "still must comply" with board protocol.

"Board governance does not say that I have to sit in my chair," said Dyer.

"No, but it's disruptive to get up and down …" she said, and left the room.

Since the board voted to oust Dyer, many residents have weighed in on the matter — and how it might affect the county's image.

"There is a feeling of sadness where everyone thinks that there are so many other issues to focus on," said Chaun Hightower, president of the PTA Council of Howard County.

Hightower said that after the school board vote, she and a group of parents held an impromptu meeting to discuss the matter. "Around the room," she said, "there were people in support of Dyer who felt his voice was being restrained and those who believe that the board is taking the right steps."

Ellicott City resident Christine Daugherty is among those who object to Dyer's practices. "He needs to go," she said. "He pulls strings and then wants to turn around and act as if things are being done to him."

But for the Elkridge residents who had their questions posed during the work session, Dyer is seen as a man of the people.

"He's got my vote," said Elkridge resident Becky Kimball. "This is about the people, and I understand procedure, but it's not like the auditorium was filled with an angry mob. It would have been nice if [the school board] would have been considerate and given us 10 minutes of time."

"He's not a bobblehead," added Suzanne Straub of Elkridge. "I felt like he wanted to listen to what we had to say and he didn't care what they said."

When asked later about the Elkridge residents' comments, Siddiqui replied, "His approach is wrong. We are all here, all the board members are here for every citizen for the county, every district, every single community and we represent all the community members."

Asked whether there is a public perception that Dyer has become the voice of the people on the school board, Siddiqui replied, "It is a perception, and sometimes that perception is a wrong perception. In different circumstances, he may behave differently."

Although the removal of a sitting school board member is rare, it is not without precedent.

In 2007, Talbot County school board member Maryann Judy was removed at the request of fellow board members, who accused her of submitting a backdated evaluation of Superintendent Karen Salmon after missing the submission deadline. She had been appointed to the board in 2003.

Already citizens are considering how the Dyer controversy might affect next year's school board elections, when three of the seven seats will be at stake. The primary is slated for April.

"If [the request to remove Dyer] is upheld, the board will be happy and someone will take his place eventually," said Rich Corkran, a retired Howard County school teacher. "If it's not upheld then they will have to work with him until 2012 and conceivably another term if he gets reelected."

Baltimore Sun reporter Liz Bowie contributed to this article.

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