As Howard County schools Superintendent Michael Martirano met with County Council member Opel Jones about school redistricting, a news release from three council members went out, calling for the school system to create a countywide plan to “desegregate” schools.
Jones was one of the three council members calling for the action, which also included a council resolution that will be introduced in September. The news release was published Aug. 13.
In his meeting with Martirano, Jones mentioned the resolution but not the news release, according to emails obtained by the Howard County Times through a Maryland Public Information Act request.
“To say I was surprised to see the press release right after my meeting is an understatement,” Martirano wrote in an email to all seven Board of Education members.
Council members Christiana Mercer Rigby, Deb Jung and Jones sent out the joint release, stating the students who participate in the school system’s Free and Reduced Meals program are concentrated in certain schools.
As the school system embarks on a comprehensive redistricting process, the three council members would like to see “new systems that foster necessary change” from the “socioeconomic and racial segregation in the school system,” according to the release.
Martirano is presenting recommendations for redistricting for the 2020-21 academic year Thursday. The school board will review Martirano’s recommendations over the next three months and then vote on a plan in November.
Martirano met with Jones at 4 p.m. Aug. 13. The news release went out at approximately 4:15 p.m.
Jones said he did not know when the news release was scheduled to be sent out.
There was “no reason why I didn’t tell Martirano [about the release] … our office wasn’t doing the press release,” Jones said. The release was sent out by Rigby’s office.
The release was “never meant to surprise anyone,” Jones said.
The emails show that while a few school board members were called on Aug. 13, they were not told of the impending release, only the resolution.
In an interview, school board Chairwoman Mavis Ellis said she was notified via email about the resolution hours before it came out. Out of the country at the time, Ellis said she was asked if she wanted to make a statement.
Ellis said she “wrote up a quick statement,” but did not contact any other board members, due to her being out of the country. She said she was quoted as an individual, not as a representative for the entire school board.
Her statement in the release reads: “As Chair of the Howard County Board of Education, capable of casting only one vote, I support this resolution that focuses on the socioeconomic and racial desegregation of Howard County Public Schools. Many have called for equity, and it’s the Board of Education’s hard decisions that will make equity happen for all students in Howard County.”
Ellis said she supports the resolution because she works with students who are part of the Free and Reduced Meals program and she is concerned about their needs being met.
“I think if the County Council is interested in doing something, I would, for one, support it as we look at redistricting,” Ellis said in an interview. “I was on the board when we dealt with this [redistricting] last [time] and FARMs was not a focus.”
Kirsten Coombs, the school board’s vice chairwoman, did not receive any notice about the resolution or the news release, according to emails.
“This press release implies that the Board was made aware of it. Even though Mavis’ quote indicates her vote as an individual Board member, she also identifies herself as Chair. This may have not been her intention, but because her statement was not vetted nor brought to the attention of the full Board or staff, we were unable to collectively discuss potential repercussions,” Coombs wrote.
“What happened today [Aug. 13] portrays us as a fragmented Board.”
School board member Chao Wu wrote in an email, “I was really disappointed on how the county council handled this. So it seems only Mavis knew this before the press release?”
Rigby reached out to two school board members the day of the news release and mentioned the resolution but not the release, according to the emails.
Vicky Cutroneo, another school board member, said she received a phone call around 1 p.m., Aug. 13.
Cutroneo wrote that Rigby offered her “political coverage” in regards to redistricting.
“I responded that I did not need nor desire political coverage for my decisions,” Cutroneo wrote. “I was given [the] impression that a resolution was in the discussion stages and was surprised to see [a] fully articulated press release a few hours later.”
School board member Jen Mallo also wrote that she received a phone call from Rigby about the resolution around 1:30 p.m., Aug. 13.
However, Rigby “said nothing about a press release,” Mallo wrote.
Coombs wrote, “I’d like to know how long this has been in the works and why we were not alerted prior to the press release.”
School board members Christina Delmont-Small and Sabina Taj did not respond in the email chain. Delmont-Small said she was not contacted, and Taj said she received a phone call but only about the resolution.
Martirano wrote, “Simply put, this should have been communicated more effectively to us by the [County Council].”
Rigby, who did not respond Wednesday to specific questions, issued a statement Thursday explaining why the resolution is being introduced and her “hope that we can have a conversation on how to solve these issues, including through the school boundary review process, rather than focusing on the day and time that a press release was sent out.”
“We are a new Council, and there is always room for improvement in communication. However, I am very concerned when more attention is given to the logistical details of a press release than the actual matter at hand, the meaningful integration in Howard County public schools,” Rigby said.
Councilman David Yungmann, who has said he will not support the resolution, said he “found out about it as courtesy about an hour before it went out.”
Yungmann said the County Council is “overstepping” its bounds with the resolution.
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“We all ran on collaborating more with the Board of Education,” he said. “Why did the County Council do this? Why again are the County Council and school board not working together?”