State education board member resigns in protest of governor's school calendar mandate

Liz Bowie
Contact ReporterThe Baltimore Sun
State school board member calls governor's action "intolerable."

A well-respected Maryland State School board member quit Tuesday, saying he believed Gov. Larry Hogan had usurped the power of the independent board when he issued an executive order requiring schools to start after Labor Day.

James Gates, a University of Maryland physicist who has served for seven years since he was appointed by Gov. Martin O'Malley, called the action "intolerable" because he believes it is bad education policy and takes away the right of state and local school boards to make decisions about schools. He made his announcement at the end of a state school board meeting on Tuesday – just after pushing "send" on a resignation letter he sent by email to the governor.

The state school board, which had previously expressed its concerns about the executive order, voted on a resolution stating its authority and quoting a Maryland Court of Appeals decision from 1984 that said the board has the last word in the state on education policy. The board did not take any action to challenge the governor's actions.

Board member Laura Weeldreyer said the resolution was intended to be a unified statement from the board "as we struggled to process what role is left to us and what authority we have to exercise."

Guffrie M. Smith, another ​board member, said many of his colleagues on the board were very concerned.

" We need to make sure that we rally around this problem we have in terms of the executive order," he said. "Sometimes you have to make the best stand that you can."

At its last meeting, the state board had encouraged local school systems to apply for a waiver to the executive order, saying they would act "expeditiously" on any waivers it got. In response, Hogan issued a second executive order making it difficult for any district to get a waiver.

In the letter to the governor, Gates said, "I do not now confidently work in an environment I perceive as supportive of education nor respects the independence of the board." The letter also said the governor's office was attempting to interfere with the workings of the board. "To have representatives of the governor call on my mobile phone is a new experience."

State school board members work in a voluntary capacity and do not always follow the lead of the governors who appoint them.

"Your executive order has the remarkable potential to damage both the most at risk and the most ambitious students in Maryland," Gates wrote in his letter to the governor. "Ultimately, with this directive the state of Maryland will risk losing in the future its national standing of having one of the country's best educational systems."

Gates said at the meeting that Hogan's actions had made him "extremely uncomfortable."

In first announcing the order, Hogan said protecting "the traditional end of summer" has economic, environmental, health and public safety benefits.Educators have argued that those decisions have always been left to the local county school boards. They also say the governor's decree increases the loss of learning over the summer for disadvantaged students.

"Ultimately, the board members are free to their own opinions, misguided as they are, but they won't stop the governor from doing what is clearly right and what the vast majority of Marylanders want to see done," said Douglass Mayer, Hogan's spokesman.

Gates, who was appointed seven years ago, was one of the most respected members on the board.

Madhu Sidhu said the board had been diminished by the executive order. "Look what we are losing because of the way it was done," she said about Gates departure.

Other board members said they are saddened to see him leave and that his leadership had kept the board grounded.

"Your integrity speaks volumes to this board," Weeldreyer said.

Gates said that he "hoped there would be a vigorous discussion in the state about what it means to have an independent board."

liz.bowie@baltsun.com

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