Howard Superintendent's critics seek change on school board

Howard Superintendent's critics seek change on school board
"I want to see a board in there that's going to challenge the superintendent, that's going to make her accountable, who's transparent, who will respond to constituents and their problems. And that can only take place with a strong board," state Del. Frank Turner said about the election. "And this board, to me, does not show the strength that it should have shown over the last four years." (Staff photo by Jen Rynda)

With Renee Foose set to begin another four-year term as superintendent of Howard County schools — despite attempts to block her reappointment — her critics say they are looking to the upcoming Board of Education election as the only way to restore accountability and transparency to the county school system.

"She's not going anywhere," Del. Frank Turner, a Democrat representing District 13 who has spoken out against current school system leadership, said of the superintendent. "Why not focus your time on where you can make a difference? And that is who you elect to the school board on April 26."


Board Vice Chairwoman Ellen Flynn Giles said that public trust in the school system has broken down in recent months, but that electing new members is not the way to restore it.

"I don't think that just slapping a label of challenger or incumbent is particularly helpful to moving forward, or fair to any candidates, to treat them as just a challenger or incumbent," she said. "Voters have to look at what's under that, take an honest look at what each of these candidates brings to the table and make your decision based on that."

Board Chairwoman Christine O'Connor, who voted to retain Foose, did not respond to repeated phone calls for comment on this story. Board member Sandra French, who also voted in favor of Foose's contract renewal, declined to comment, saying, "It's a personal ethic that I have that I do not believe, as a board member, that I should get involved in campaigns."

Giles and two other board members, Ann De Lacy and Janet Siddiqui – all three of whom voted in favor of Foose's contract renewal — are running for reelection against eight challengers in the April 26 primary. Residents will cast three votes to narrow the field down to six candidates who will compete for three seats on the school board in the Nov. 7 general election.

"I want to see a board in there that's going to challenge the superintendent, that's going to make her accountable, who's transparent, who will respond to constituents and their problems. And that can only take place with a strong board," Turner said about the election. "And this board, to me, does not show the strength that it should have shown over the last four years."

Five of the seven current school board members voted to renew Foose's contract in early February amid accusations from some parents and local officials that, under her leadership, the school system has ignored parent concerns, suppressed educators' voices and unlawfully refused public information requests. Foose has been criticized by parents, county officials and Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan for the school system's lack of communication about mold issues at Glenwood Middle School and other county schools.

"There's a palpable loss of trust between many parents and the county school system," Hogan said at a Jan. 27 state Board of Public Works meeting, "and in particular with the superintendent."

At a December town hall hosted by Turner and state Del. Warren Miller attended by more than 200 county residents, dozens of parents and educators called for a change in leadership, citing concerns about the school system's alleged lack of openness and accountability. In December and January, a petition calling on the school board to "Cut Foose Loose" collected more than 1,300 signatures.

Foose, whose new contract begins July 1, declined to comment on the allegations against her.

"The message perceived by parents is, we know more than you, and you're not privy to any of this situation, so we'll handle it," said Ellen Kaplan, parent of three Howard County public school students and critic of the superintendent. "This is not how you make a school system strong and great."

Board members who voted in favor of the superintendent's reappointment said that Foose has met or exceeded their expectations, citing increased graduation rates and test scores in recent years, as well as her introduction of new programs and initiatives.

"I believe she is a strong leader, focused on the needs of all students," O'Connor wrote in a letter to the Howard County Times in February. "And I am confident our school system will continue to progress under her leadership."

After the board's vote, parents unhappy with Foose's reappointment sent letters to Jack Smith, the interim state superintendent of schools, requesting that he deny approval of her new contract; county superintendent hirings are not valid unless approved by the state superintendent, according to Maryland law.

Smith approved Foose's contract two weeks after the board's vote.


He later said in a meeting with members of the Howard County delegation to the General Assembly that his authority is limited to verifying county superintendents' credentials.

Miller, a vocal opponent to Foose's reappointment, had requested that Smith meet with the delegation so that he and others could express their concerns about Foose. Miller sponsored a state bill unanimously passed by the House of Delegates in March that would require the state public information ombudsman to investigate Howard County school officials' compliance with the Maryland Public Information Act since Foose took office in 2012.

"[Smith] essentially told us that she is not accountable to him," said Del. Vanessa Atterbeary, a Democrat representing District 13 who has criticized Foose's reappointment. "So then the question is, if she's not accountable to you, and you are not going to look into those concerns, then who is she accountable to?"

Atterbeary agrees with Turner that, in order for concerns about Foose's leadership to be addressed, residents need to head to the polls on April 26.

"People have to be active in these Board of Education elections," Atterbeary said. "They need board members who are actually going to listen to parents, hear their concerns and have the best interests of parents and students — not sit up in their office and essentially rubber stamp everything that the superintendent does."

"I think it's upon the board, who has employed the superintendent, to either be responsible for how she's carrying out her job or to assure that she's doing a better job," added Del. Terri Hill, a Democrat representing District 12 who attended the meeting with Smith.

Parents and elected officials opposed to Foose's superintendency have repeatedly accused five of the board's seven members — O'Connor, Giles, De Lacy, Siddiqui and French — of blindly following her leadership. This, critics say, is reflected in the frequent 5 to 2 voting pattern of the board in support of Foose's decisions, including the vote to renew her contract.

"They're 'amening' everything she does, except for two members," Atterbeary said.

Giles disagrees with allegations that the board "rubber stamps" the superintendent or that the board frequently votes 5 to 2. She said that each board member has her own individual perspectives and opinions.


"I think we hold the superintendent accountable," she said. "There may be additional things the public would like to see in order to understand that, or maybe they want to see different questions asked. That's certainly something they can bring to us and say, we want to know about that, or we didn't hear about that."