An online petition requesting the Howard County Board of Education not renew Superintendent Renee Foose's four-year contract has collected more than 700 signatures since it went live last week.
The "Cut Foose Loose" petition cites concerns about several decisions under Foose's leadership, including the suspension of the Operating Budget Review Committee; lack of communication with parents about mold issues at Glenwood Middle School; and elimination of the school system's in-house attorneys in favor of contracted legal services — since that decision was made in 2012, the school system's legal fees have nearly tripled.
Foose declined to comment on the petition.
Petition co-sponsors are The People's Voice, a Howard County civic organization, and three Facebook groups related to issues in the county's schools: Mold in Howard County Schools — Information for Parents; Voices of Parents and Stakeholders in HCPSS; and Grace K. McComas Memorial Webpage. As of Tuesday afternoon, a week after it was posted, the petition had accumulated 701 signatures toward a goal of 1,000.
"If these people are willing to take the time to sign the petition, you've got to look at that as a representation of probably even more out there," said Lisa Markovitz, president of The People's Voice. She said that more parents and educators would sign the petition if not for their fear of retribution from school system leadership.
"And to just dismiss that as some relational aspect to the population of the county: I don't think that's the way most people react to hearing that level of concern from constituents," she said.
If Foose decides to seek renewal of her contract, a decision that she must communicate to the board by Feb. 1, board members will vote on whether or not to approve it by March 1. Foose's current contract ends in June.
"Our concern ... was that the Board of Education members likely to support renewal of Foose's contract were possibly not realizing how widespread the concerns were," Markovitz said. "We wanted to give as many people as possible a voice to let [board members] know how permeated these concerns are within the county."
School board member Ann De Lacy wrote about the petition in an email to the Howard County Citizens Association listserv. "There are well over 300,000 people who live in HoCo so 400 people is not an impressive number," she wrote. When De Lacy posted the message Dec. 23, the day after the petition went live, it had approximately 400 signatures.
"I'm personally focused on equity, opportunity, serving the common good and de facto segregation," she wrote. "I will not be silenced by a loud and well-organized minority."
"The argument that this is a minority of organized, loud people is not reflected in the different people who signed it," said board member Cindy Vaillancourt. "I'm looking at the names and I'm seeing a cross-section of the county and people who I've never seen involved in anything ….There are people from every corner of the county, every possible persuasion of political thought and groups that are involved."
Vaillancourt said that each board member must make her own decision about renewing Foose's contract, but that all of the members "should be paying close attention to what our community is saying.
"Everybody has to make their own value judgments," she said. "But one of the reasons that this petition has come up is that the people who are signing it and the others who are too scared to sign it don't feel like their voices are being heard and they feel like they've been dismissed as the loud minority. [The petition] is just another manifestation of their frustration."
At an education town hall hosted by delegates Frank Turner and Warren Miller in December, more than 30 parents and educators accused the superintendent and school board of operating without transparency and accountability. Several of the speakers at that meeting, which was attended by more than 200 people, called for a change in school system leadership.
"So many things were adding up," Markowitz said about parent concerns expressed at the meeting and through other venues. "It was getting so overwhelming."
She and the other co-sponsors felt that a petition would show board members the gravity of the situation.
Sandie French, who has been on the board for more than 20 years, said that the signatures on the petition would not influence her decision on the contract renewal.
"The board that existed in 2012 hired Dr. Foose and gave her a charge. She has been following that charge of increasing academic achievement for all diverse populations of our student body," French said. "Yes, there are individual issues, but we'll work through them. And so obviously I am not going to be swayed by a public opinion poll."
Board Chairwoman Christine O'Connor questioned the authenticity of the signatures and the accuracy of the concerns in the petition, although Markowitz said that she was removing any names she believed to be fake.
"The bottom line — if you read the petition and you see who's signing it — they're making up names," said O'Connor. "People are making up names and just adding them to the petition."
Both O'Connor and French said that they stand by the superintendent because her leadership has benefited students in Howard County.
"The Board of Education fully supports the superintendent and what she's doing for the benefit of our 53,000 students," O'Connor said. "Everything that the public is concerned about is being addressed in one form or another, and some things take a little more time."
"I believe she has met our standards and our goals," French said, "and I believe in her."