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Bill to investigate Howard school system's public information law compliance reaches Maryland Senate

Bill to investigate Howard school system's public information law compliance reaches Maryland Senate
A state bill meant to address allegations that Howard County school officials have unlawfully withheld public information has reached a Senate committee after the House of Delegates voted 140 to 0 to approve its passage earlier this month. (XX)

A state bill meant to address allegations that Howard County school officials have unlawfully withheld public information has reached a Senate committee after the House of Delegates voted 140 to 0 to approve its passage earlier this month.

Proponents of the bill came before the Senate Education, Health and Environmental Affairs Committee Wednesday to ask for a favorable vote, citing their individual struggles to obtain records, emails and reports from the Howard County school system that they believe should be provided under the Maryland Public Information. No one testified against the bill.

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"We are told repeatedly that things don't exist that do [exist]," said Board of Education member Cindy Vaillancourt, who testified in support of the bill Wednesday and two weeks before that in front of a House committee. "Or we're given incomplete or inaccurate information."

If passed by the Senate and signed into law by Gov. Larry Hogan, the legislation would require the state public information ombudsman to investigate the validity of Howard County school officials' refusals of Maryland Public Information Act requests under Superintendent Renee Foose's leadership. Foose became superintendent of Howard County schools in 2012.

"This is a bill to begin to correct some communication problems that have certainly existed in the school system," said state Del. Eric Ebersole, a Democrat representing District 12. "These problems are beginning to erode public trust between the community and the school system. These steps will begin to repair some of the damage has been done."

After hearing testimony, state Sen. Paul Pinsky, the committee's vice chairman, raised questions about the need for state legislation – instead of the county school board's intervention – to remediate the situation.

He pointed out that the Howard County Board of Education is supposed to oversee the school system, and that it could put into place "codified language" that would direct the school system to comply with the Maryland Public Information Act.

"If the other five — the majority five on the board — choose to ignore it, there is nothing I can do," Vaillancourt said, referring to five of the board's seven members who regularly align in their voting.

Pinsky, a Democrat from Prince George's County, then suggested that the only reason the issue had reached the state level is because it had not been worked out by the Howard County school board.

"I don't think anyone wants to be here with this bill," responded state Del. Warren Miller, who initially proposed the legislation last October. "We all hope in Howard County that our board will hold our superintendent accountable. That is not happening. That's why we're here with the bill."

Pinsky asked why the investigation prescribed in the legislation would only review public information refusals from 2012 to 2015, and Vaillancourt said that was when the school system had a change in administration and its handling of public information became a bigger problem.

"So then the problem is with the superintendent?" Pinsky asked.

"You said that, not me," Vaillancourt said, to laughter from members of the public and the committee.

Following a vote, the committee will refer House Bill 1105 to the Senate floor with a recommendation of "favorable," "unfavorable" or "favorable with amendment." On rare occasions, bills are referred with no recommendation.

The legislation must then be passed by a majority of the Senate before it reaches Hogan's desk.

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