School board newcomers begin quest for accountability, prepare for pushback

Shedding tears, Kirsten Coombs embraces her daughter, Lilly, after securing a seat on the board on Nov. 8.
Shedding tears, Kirsten Coombs embraces her daughter, Lilly, after securing a seat on the board on Nov. 8. (Fatimah Waseem /)

New school board members who ousted a trio of incumbents in this month's election hope to usher in a new era of accountability and transparency when the new board is sworn in on Dec. 5.

Critics of Howard County Schools Superintendent Renee Foose, whose $273,000 four-year contract was renewed earlier this year despite efforts to block her reappointment, said the election of newcomers Kirsten Coombs, Christina Delmont-Small and Mavis Ellis will allow the school board to reassert its authority over Foose, garner more public input and respond to community concerns.


"Now that the public has spoken, we have a huge responsibility: restoring the trust of the community," said Delmont-Small.

All three members do not support the renewal of Foose's four-year contract, joining two other members who voted against the contract renewal. The incumbents who lost the election, including Janet Siddiqui, a Clarksville pediatrician on the board since 2007, have often sided with a five-member majority and Foose on controversial policy decisions.


"The days of the 5-2 rubber stamp are gone," said Vicky Cutroneo, who narrowly lost a run for the seven-member board. "The house of cards is starting to tumble."

Siddiqui, who said she was unavailable for an interview, did say she was honored to serve the county and thanked the nearly 50,000 people who voted for her in November. Voters in the primaries earlier knocked out incumbents Ellen Flynn Giles and Ann DeLacy.

The change could create a new alliance with remaining board members who have questioned the board's majority decisions. All three new school board members are endorsed by the county's teacher's unions.

Capping a year that saw critics of the Howard County school system vow to sweep incumbents from the Board of Education, voters Tuesday appeared to do just that - electing a trio of newcomers to fill three available seats and potentially change the dynamics of the board.

"The board will now direct the superintendent. The superintendent will not direct the board," Kirsten-Coombs said.


But the newcomers worry a clause in the superintendent's contract — which states the board must support the superintendent and not impede her efforts in implementing Vision 2018, a guiding plan that lays out broad objectives for the school system — is designed to tie the hands of the board.

"One of the first things we need to do is find out the limits of what the board can do. This clause is very troubling because it seems to give away the authority of the board," Ellis said.

Coombs said she is prepared for potential pushback from the school system's leadership.

"We will have to make sure we are trying to be prepared for potential rebuff," Coombs said. "The question is, what legal weight does it have?"

By law, the board has a vested control of education matters within the county and must seek ways to promote the interest of the school community.

Robert Miller, a school board candidate who lost in the election, said it is difficult to predict how the new board will work with the superintendent.

"It's incredibly tricky. So much of what is done related to Vision 2018 is a real stretch. Can the new board come in and say it's time for Vision 2020?" Miller said.

But Foose said the clause simply reinforces the school system's commitment to Vision 2018.

"The process is, I make recommendations to the board of education. They then pick and choose what they want to do. … There isn't anything more than that," Foose said.

Despite the election of board members who have staked stances against her, Foose said she does not anticipate friction.

"We all want the same thing," Foose said. "If we focus on that, we will continue to move forward," she said.

Christine O'Connor, school board chairwoman, hopes newcomers will enter their positions with open minds.

"I hope that they'll give [Foose] the chance she deserves to prove how good she actually is," O'Connor said. "Once they get to know her like I did, they might see the light."

Five challengers and one incumbent are vying for three seats on Howard County's school board in a contested election challengers believe is key to salvage lost accountability and transparency in the school system's leadership.

The new board has a "clean slate" that can work to address community concerns, O'Connor said.

"I do truly believe that all the good work that the board did in the past two years didn't get heard. I don't know why," she said.

The board faces major policy decisions in the coming two years, including redistricting, the school system's budget, changes to the school calendar, plans for a new high school and changes to school opening and closing times.

New members also hope to reinstate a citizen operating budget review committee that was disbanded; address the school system's high suspension rates of blacks and special education students; and investigate the school system's use of no-bid contracts.

The new board will sift through an unprecedented wealth of information on the school system leadership's progress, including a financial audit by the county and a state investigation on the system's handling of information requests, which was requested by a bipartisan group of state lawmakers.

"We're going to have to be able to take all of this information in and act swiftly," Delmont-Small said. She hopes to develop a formal system to assess the success and track record of the superintendent.

Newcomers are optimistic they will live up to what they said was a vested responsibility to restore accountability in the school system's leadership.

Ellis said the new board will allow more opportunities for public input and create an environment that will allow teachers and staff to testify without fear of reprimand.

"We all come from different paths, but we are all for transparency and collaboration. That will be our goal," she said. "The people have spoken and now it is our turn to act."