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Howard school board ratifies contentious Clemens Crossing Elementary redistricting vote

The Howard County Board of Education ratified a contentious decision Tuesday night that was made during the final redistricting vote last month.

On Nov. 21, when a motion failed by a 4-3 margin to move elementary school students from one neighborhood to a different school, the school board took a recess and, when it returned, it revoted on the motion without discussing it in public.

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On Tuesday, the school board voted to ratify and to reaffirm the vote taken Nov. 21 with respect to Clemens Crossing Elementary School. It passed by the same 4-3 margin.

Before the ratification vote, board Chairwoman Mavis Ellis read a statement about what occurred during the Nov. 21 recess.

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“After the vote on Clemens Crossing unexpectedly failed, Ms. Mallo requested a brief recess to consider the impact of that failed vote and what adjustments the board might be required to make to address the issue,” Ellis read.

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

During the less than four-minute recess, “emotions were running high” as board members entered the caucus room — at different times — to look at redistricting data “and/or figure out what to do,” the statement reads.

Coombs “apparently realized” the ripple effect in having the Clemens Crossing motion fail and so “reluctantly” told Ellis the only option was to “request reconsideration [on the vote] so she could change her vote.”

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 in November.

In the statement, Ellis read the “board publicly acknowledges and corrects what appears to us to be a violation of the Open Meetings Act, albeit unintentional.

“I want to say very clearly, there was no intent to evade our obligation to deliberate on these important decisions in public or to violate the Open Meetings Act. The intent was to recess and re-assess what to do next — not to convene a closed meeting to do so,” Ellis read.

She added, “I think there is little question that there was a quorum in the planning room for all or part of the brief exchange that may have impacted Ms. Coombs’ decision to request reconsideration of the vote.”

After Ellis read the statement in full, several board members expressed concerns about not receiving the statement ahead of the meeting. A short recess was taken to allow all members to read through the statement.

Vice Chairwoman Vicky Cutroneo said she does not believe the statement was accurate.

“I was in the room. I was a witness to the discussion and when Chair Ellis read the statement, I highlighted and starred some things that did not sit well with me,” Cutroneo said.

Christina Delmont-Small, the first school board member to express frustration with not seeing the statement ahead of time, does not support it.

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“I believe the statement read misleads the community [to what] occurred during the recess,” she said.

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.

After the Nov. 21 vote, the process appeared to be over. However, the following day, a parent filed a complaint to the Maryland Open Meetings Compliance Board.

Then, on Dec. 11, a separate parent filed an injunction in Circuit Court against the school board’s final redistricting decision based on the argument that the board violated the Maryland Open Meetings Act.

The redistricting decision of moving students from Clemens Crossing Elementary to Bryant Woods Elementary was made “immediately following a secretive closed-door meeting that violated the Opening Meetings Act,” according to the court filing.

Hours later Dec. 11, the school board’s Tuesday meeting agenda was updated to reflect an additional action item titled “Ratification of Vote on Redistricting.” Nothing indicated the vote was related to the Open Meetings Act injunction.

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.

Clemens Crossing families affected by the ratification can take action to appeal the board’s decision within the next 30 days, beginning Dec. 17. Appeals can be sent to the Maryland State Board of Education.

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