New Howard Board of Education members seek collaboration

New Howard Board of Education members seek collaboration
Christine O'Connor, a newly elected Board of Education member, speaks a candidates' forum in Columbia in September. (By Blair Ames, Baltimore Sun Media Group)

Over the past year, the Howard County Board of Education has endured an ugly contract negotiation dispute with its teachers union and twice passed resolutions stating it was displeased with one of its own members.

With two new board members and two incumbents set to be sworn in for a four-year term Dec. 1, it's fair to wonder whether some of those troubles from 2014 will extend into 2015.


Newcomers Bess Altwerger and Christine O'Connor will join incumbents Sandie French and Cindy Vaillancourt behind the dais next week after the four prevailed in the Nov. 4 general election.

As the two newcomers join the seven-member Board of Education, a board overseeing one of the state's most envied school systems, Bess Altwerger and Christine O'Connor say they're hoping to become a part of a collaborative board.

"The only thing I can do as an individual is listen and be very thoughtful in my decisions," O'Connor said. "I will do everything I can to facilitate proper teamwork."

Altwerger, one of four candidates endorsed in this year's election by the Howard County Education Association, said she hopes for more collaboration among the board, community members, teachers and parents so everyone has a voice in school system decisions.

"Nobody knows better than the teachers what is needed to have a quality education in our schools," she said.

The Howard County Education Association had campaigned hard for its slate of four candidates, but only two, Altwerger and Vaillancourt, made the cut. HCEA also recommended candidates Dan Furman and Dr. Zaneb Beams, who finished fifth and sixth respectively.

Despite not having all of its preferred candidates elected, HCEA President Paul Lemle said the association is "going to do everything in our power to welcome the new members and be a good partner to the board."

Lemle added that he believes an agreement in principle between the school system and teachers union to implement interest-based bargaining should make negotiations less contentious.

Vaillancourt, who was twice been reprimanded for actions her colleagues deemed inappropriate, received nearly 16 percent of the vote Nov. 4 finishing 1,412 votes ahead of fellow incumbent and second highest vote-getter Sandie French.

Vaillancourt called the election results "extremely gratifying and humbling" and said she is optimistic about her next term, escaping some of the negativity that has surrounded her.

She said she's hopeful the board can address issues such as school start times and increased vocational opportunities for students.

"I think there's a lot more common ground than disagreement, so that's something to build on" she said.

Vaillancourt added that the Board of Education repairing its relationship with HCEA, the school system's largest employee union, will be critical to any future success.

"We cannot continue to be at war with the teacher's union and expect that we're going to be able to make the kinds of dramatic changes to our education delivery models that we want and that we think will be helpful," she said.


Altwerger and O'Connor will replace retiring board members Frank Aquino and Larry Walker, who were honored by their colleagues at the Nov. 20 Board of Education meeting.

French, who will begin serving her fifth term on the board Dec. 1, could not be reached for comment.