Howard school officials' public information denials may be investigated under House bill

Howard school officials' public information denials may be investigated under House bill
The House of Delegates Ways and Means Committee is considering legislation that would initiate an investigation of the Howard County school system's responses to public information requests under Superintendent Renee Foose's leadership. (By Joshua McKerrow / Baltimore Sun Media Group)

The Maryland House of Delegates Ways and Means Committee heard public testimony Monday about legislation that would open an investigation into the Howard County School System's handling of public information requests under Superintendent Renee Foose's leadership.

Nearly a dozen Howard County residents and elected officials urged the 22-member committee to support the bill. No one testified against it.


"House Bill 1105 is a strong message from people and delegates that we're concerned that our Board of Education and school system have not been open and transparent in conducting the business of educating our children," said Howard County parent and Board of Education candidate Christina Delmont-Small. "If the school system has and is complying with the Maryland Public Information Act then any investigation, evaluation and report of the Ombudsman will show that."

If passed by both houses of the General Assembly and signed into law, the bill would require the newly hired Maryland Public Information Ombudsman to investigate and create a report about the validity of school officials' denials of public information requests since Foose took office on July 1, 2012.

"This is one of the only bills that came before the delegation in which all 12 members — all senators, all delegates — voted for it," said state Del. Frank Turner, a Democrat who represents District 13 and serves as vice-chair of the Ways and Means Committee. "We would like to see it move forward."

State Del. Eric Ebersole, a member of the Howard County delegation who taught in the county's schools for 35 years, told the committee that he voted for the bill because the current "negative perception" of the school system will affect its ability to hire the best educators in future years.

"Howard County has rich tradition of establishing positive relationships between the community, school administration, the board and teachers," said the Democrat representing District 12 who sits on the Ways and Means Committee. "But recent actions by the board and the relative inability to properly respond to public information act requests requires us to stop erosion that is taking place."

State Del. Warren Miller, a Republican representing District 9A, proposed House Bill 1105 last October in response to a growing number of complaints that county school officials operate without transparency and openness.

The original version of the bill would have placed public information parameters on the school system that were stricter than those required by Maryland law, but state Del. Robert Flanagan, a Republican who represents 9B, revised the legislation to apply to past public information act compliance.

"Everybody assumes that Howard County has the best schools," Miller told the Ways and Means Committee Monday. "But we've had many concerns from parents and residents in Howard County about schools and the way that the superintendent and board have responded to queries about schools."

When asked about the fate of House Bill 1105, Miller said that the General Assembly has historically approved local bills that have the support of the appropriate county's delegation.

Last November members of the Howard County Board of Education voted 5- 2 to oppose the legislation, saying that it unfairly singled out the county's school system.

One of the two board members who cast dissenting votes, Cindy Vaillancourt, testified in support of House Bill 1105 Monday, but emphasized that she was doing so as an individual and not as a member of the school board.

Board policy dictates that board members can testify in opposition to the board's official position on legislation, only if they do so as individuals and not as representatives of the school board.

Like the parents who testified, Vaillancourt spoke of her struggle to obtain public information from the school system, particularly with regards to a complaint lodged against her in 2014.

Del. Jay Walker, a Democrat from Prince George's County who is on the Ways and Means Committee, responded to Vaillancourt's words with disbelief.


"You're currently on the board?" he asked. "And you couldn't get a straight answer?"

Vaillancourt said that she could "never get a straight answer."

"You all clearly have a problem and your delegation is doing the right thing," Walker said about the public information bill.

Miller said Monday that the Ways and Means Committee would likely vote on House Bill 1105 later this week.