On Monday, the Howard County Board of Education will swear in its newly elected at-large members – former educator Jacky McCoy, of Columbia, and engineer Linfeng Chen, of North Laurel – to help oversee 77 county schools, more than 57,000 students and a $1 billion operation budget.
McCoy and Chen will replace Vicky Cutroneo and Chao Wu, who have concluded their four-year terms.
Cutroneo and Wu, elected in 2018, faced unprecedented challenges during their tenure, including fallout from the school board-backed ousting of Superintendent Renee Foose, spiraling deferred maintenance costs, countywide redistricting in 2019 and the COVID-19 pandemic, beginning in 2020.
Despite the challenges, both outgoing members said they were glad to be given the opportunity to represent their constituents and raise issues they cared about during a historic time.
“I worked really hard every night, went to sleep very late and got up earlier,” reflected Wu, 45, of Clarksville, an engineer and county public school parent, who says he served to address the school system’s nearly $40 million health fund deficit, among other issues, and increase Asian American diversity on the board.
Board chair Cutroneo, 54, first ran unsuccessfully in 2016 after the failure of the Foose administration to address the presence of black mold in her oldest daughter’s middle school. After winning an at-large seat, she sought to shift the culture of the board to increase transparency, particularly with regard for student health concerns.
“I always tried to be the board member that I wanted when I was a parent,” said Cutroneo, of Woodbine, whose three daughters attended Howard public schools.
While some goals were left unfulfilled, such as the adjustment of school start times and expanded recess periods, both Cutroneo and Wu said they left the school board better than they found it.
“My proudest accomplishment is bringing deferred maintenance and school facilities to the forefront of the discussion,” Cutroneo said. “Their importance to a healthy and equitable learning environment is always talked about now.”
School system challenges during COVID
The pandemic loomed large over much of Cutroneo’s and Wu’s terms, with students enduring online and hybrid models before resuming full in-person instruction in fall 2021.
“Every decision was so difficult,” said Cutroneo, who said she benefited from her experience in nursing and as an infectious disease clinical research monitor. “There was no guidebook and science changes.”
After a series of motions to resume in-person learning failed in 4-4 votes, several public school parents sued to limit the voting power of the board’s student member, who repeatedly voted in favor of remaining closed. The lawsuit was rejected in March and the decision to retain student voting rights was upheld in August.
Weighing the concerns of all county residents was especially important during the pandemic, according to Cutroneo. She said many of the students who opted out of returning to classrooms part-time in March 2021 were from low-income families.
“[COVID-19] is a devastating diagnosis to a family that doesn’t have the means, that might lose a job, that might get evicted,” she said. “We have multigenerational families; a lot of times they can’t quarantine.”
Faced with myriad COVID-related challenges, the board still achieved major milestones, Wu said, including the best high school graduation rate in 10 years and the elimination of the school system’s health fund deficit, which had loomed large over budget proceedings.
“That’s really a testament to the school board working with the superintendent to really improve school operations and get every kid to the finish line,” Wu said.
Responding to concerns about mold and air quality, the school system also launched an Indoor Environmental Quality website, enabling the community to report any facility’s issues and ask questions. The schools also hired a certified industrial hygienist to conduct walk-throughs of buildings.
“Mold happens; we have old schools,” Cutroneo said. “But it’s what you do and how you’re transparent [that matters].”
Looking ahead and finding common ground
Instead of seeking reelection to the board this year, Wu entered the race to represent Howard and Montgomery counties in District 9A in the Maryland General Assembly. Running as a Democrat, he declared victory Nov. 22 and holds a 113-vote lead over Republican Trent Kittleman. The State Board of Elections had not officially declared a winner in the race, as of Dec. 1.
“[The school board] seeks money from the state and the county,” said Wu, explaining his decision to run. “If I’m elected at the state level, I think I have more control, I can advocate for changes and then get more money for the school system.”
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Increased local funding will be crucial, according to Wu, as the school system implements a range of programs, from early childhood education to professional development, under the Blueprint for Maryland’s Future. He also wants to facilitate sustainable development and ease traffic congestion as Howard County grows at a rapid pace.
“I always use a data-driven approach,” he said. “At the same time, I’ll find allies in the legislature and put something forward. We are always working for the community and trying to listen to them.”
Cutroneo is in the process of relocating to Kent Island on the Eastern Shore.
Both she and Wu stressed the need for board members to find common ground, particularly as national debates affect school districts across the country.
“I worked with people on the opposite end of this political spectrum from me on legislation,” Cutroneo said. “I was nonpartisan as long as you were telling me the truth. I really believe we’re at a risk of that going away in public schools. ... You are never going to accomplish anything catering to a party.”
Cutroneo says it’s a board member’s ultimate responsibility to speak up for community members who can’t advocate for themselves.
“We can’t succumb to the temptation to listen to the loudest voices,” she said. “We have to make sure we’re hearing every voice and wondering why we’re not hearing from other people.”