Ellicott City, MD. Kirsten Coombs is sworn in to the Howard County Board of Education by Wayne Robey, Clerk of the Court, during the Howard County School Board Meeting Monday night.
Ellicott City, MD. Kirsten Coombs is sworn in to the Howard County Board of Education by Wayne Robey, Clerk of the Court, during the Howard County School Board Meeting Monday night. (Nicole Munchel / Baltimore Sun Media Group)

Following an election that many said was a call-to-action to address the current board's lack of accountability, Howard County School Board members Kirsten Coombs, Christina Delmont-Small and Mavis Ellis were sworn in Monday evening surrounded by more than 100 supporters.

The three new school board members replaced outgoing members Janet Siddiqui, Ellen Flynn Giles and Ann DeLacy. While the newcomers ousted Siddiqui in last month's election, voters knocked the other two incumbents out of the race during the April primaries.

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All three new school board members were endorsed by the county's teacher's union.

"I'm really excited about getting to work, after a year and a half of campaigning, and make our educators feel valued," Coombs said. "I want the community to know that we're working together. We all have the same goals for our students and staff in making Howard County a great school system and that we're committed to working together."

Many have predicted that the incoming board members will create a change in atmosphere on the school board, noting their disapproval of Howard County Schools Superintendent Renee Foose and her $273,000 four-year contract renewal earlier this year.

After a brief swearing-in ceremony Monday, the board selected Cynthia Vaillancourt as its new chairman and Bess Altwerger as vice chairman, and then began addressing concerns. In opening remarks, Coombs, Delmont-Small and Ellis all reiterated their campaign promises of bringing openness and transparency back to the school system, while enhancing trust and communication between staff, teachers, parents and students.

Coombs' first call-to-action was to give the Board of Education responsibility over school board staff, including the board administrator, secretarial staff and internal auditor, in an effort to increase transparency. Rather than reporting to the superintendent, staff would report directly to the board, and the board would handle any terminations of staff.

Delmont-Small also motioned that the board instruct and authorize its internal auditor to immediately begin a review of the operations of the transportation department as well as all current and existing sole-source contracts.

Both actions were passed despite opposition from board members Christine O'Connor and Sandra French, who said they needed more details about Coombs' motion before making a decision.

The vote illustrated a shift in the board's voting pattern. In the past, controversial policy decisions supported by Foose passed with a five-member majority, creating what some called a lack of trust in the board.

The board agreed to further discuss the actions in their closed session on Tuesday, Dec. 6.

Earlier in the evening, the Howard County Education Association held a congratulatory reception for the new members, where Delmont-Small apologized to educators for the previous board's limited support. Delmont-Small said she, Coombs and Ellis are united in an effort to fix underlying issues within the board.

"Educators go in every single day no matter what as the professionals they are, bringing our children what they need to succeed," Delmont-Small said. "We will be accountable to our decisions and we will work to rebuild your trust in the Board of Education."

Ellis added that the new board members will work to find ways for educators to participate in future decision-making processes. However, she said, adjustments will take time.

"I think that the new board members will be clear about their expectations in the future," Ellis said. "We know we can't make the change instantaneously, but our goal is to make change and get trust again from our constituents. Trust doesn't happen overnight. They will see what we do and what we say and that we're going in a new direction."

Lime Kiln Middle School teacher Karen Randall, who is on the teachers union's board of directors, said the change of board members is "a good thing," especially for the children it serves.

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While Randall described the new members as "a breathe of fresh air," Mt. Hebron High School teacher Bernadette Bechta said teachers are looking forward to a sense of autonomy, mastery and purpose.

"We're looking forward to seeing collegial behavior among the board members, where they respect each other's opinions," Bechta said. "If they look out to the community and the community looks back to them, solutions will come forward that are reflective of everybody's best interest; instead of disparity or argumentative behavior. We're looking for unity and a sense of community."

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