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Maryland compliance board finds Howard Board of Education violated Open Meetings Act during redistricting vote

The Maryland Open Meetings Compliance Board concluded earlier this month that the Howard County Board of Education violated the Opens Meeting Act by having a quorum when in a recess during a contentious redistricting vote in November, according to the state board’s opinion.

On Nov. 21, when a motion failed by a 4-3 margin to move certain neighborhoods from Clemens Crossing Elementary School in Columbia to Bryant Woods Elementary School nearly 3 miles away, the school board took a recess and, when it returned, members revoted on the motion without discussing it in public. One board member, Kirsten Coombs, reversed her vote to support the motion, and it passed 4-3.

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The compliance board’s opinion, issued Feb. 14, was announced during Thursday’s school board meeting. The full opinion was not read aloud.

The compliance board’s opinion reads, “We concur with the County [school] Board’s conclusion that the members’ remarks during the recess, however, brief the remarks [sic] and the recess violated the Act.”

School board Chairwoman Mavis Ellis read a set of minutes Thursday that detailed the November recess. As part of the compliance board’s opinion, the school board had to “prepare and adopt written minutes as part of the recess for which a quorum was present at the discussion of public business.”

“As several board members entered the board planning room, a dialogue took place regarding the failed motion and how the failed motion would affect the entire attendance area adjustment plan. As additional members were entering, Ms. Coombs stated she would make a motion to reconsider in order to move the plan forward,” Ellis read.

The minutes were approved 7-1; school board member Christina Delmont-Small voted no.

The state Open Meetings Act does not permit private discussion among the majority of school board members on the formation of new policy and requires a public body to cite an exception to the act before entering into closed-door discussions.

The compliance board’s opinion acknowledges that on Nov. 22, the day after the final redistricting vote, a parent filed a complaint to the compliance board. It also discusses the school board’s December ratification of the Clemens Crossing Elementary vote, where Ellis addressed the situation by reading a statement that said the “board publicly acknowledges and corrects what appears to us to be a violation of the Open Meetings Act, albeit unintentional.”

The failed redistricting motion not only would have left Clemens Crossing with a high level of capacity, but the vote’s impact would have been felt by numerous West Columbia elementary schools due to its “interdependency,” Ellis read in December.

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An injunction and complaint were filed by separate Howard County Public School System parents, arguing the school board violated the Maryland Open Meetings Act when the Clemens Crossing vote was cast.

The school board approved a redistricting plan in November to move more than 5,400 students to different schools in an effort to balance socioeconomic levels and school capacity.

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