The Howard County Delegation unanimously passed a bill Wednesday that would launch a state-level investigation into how county school officials have handled public information requests under Superintendent Renee Foose's leadership.
State Del. Warren Miller drafted the legislation last November in response to parent complaints that school officials were hiding public documents, including emails about mold at Glenwood Middle School and a report on special education in the county.
The District 13 Republican initially proposed adding provisions to the Maryland Public Information Act that would apply specifically to the Howard County Public School System. The bill in its original form would have required the school system's public records custodian to obtain court approval before denying the release of an intra-agency memorandum, and would have made the custodian liable for perjury should he or she falsely claim that a document doesn't exist.
In the past week, however, Miller's bill underwent extensive revision from state Del. Robert Flanagan in consultation with the state Attorney General's office.
"My 14 years in the General Assembly have taught me that, sometimes the bill you start with isn't the bill you need," Miller said Wednesday afternoon.
If passed by the Maryland General Assembly and signed into law by Gov. Larry Hogan, the legislation would require the state public access 0mbudsman to investigate the integrity of county school officials' denials of public information requests from July 1, 2012 — when Foose became superintendent — through December 31, 2015.
A report of the findings would be due Jan. 1, 2017 to allow time for the county's delegation to review it before the start of next year's legislative session.
"In Howard County, we have an issue to be resolved to restore public trust," Flanagan, a District 9B Republican, said after the vote. "From the ombudsman's report we can look at what has occurred in terms of denials and disputes. From the point of view of the school system, I hope the report is useful. It will give them some feedback, and will give us some feedback."
Delegates question conduct of superintendent's contract renewal
After the vote, several delegates questioned school system representatives in attendance about a Feb. 4 meeting at which the Howard County Board of Education voted to renew Foose's contract. They said they had heard from their constituents that members of the public were turned away from the main meeting room, and that the board did not allow for public input before the vote.
"It doesn't seem like it was handled appropriately," said state Sen. Edward Kasemeyer, a District 12 Democrat.
The school board's vice chairwoman, Ellen Flynn Giles, told the delegates that the board does not hold public hearings on personnel issues like that of the superintendent's contract. She also said that, once the main meeting room was at capacity, people were redirected into overflow rooms where the meeting was displayed on television monitors.
State Del. Frank Turner questioned why the board didn't move to a bigger room, and said that he was concerned by parent reports that the main meeting room was filled with school system staff members.
"If we filled our rooms full of administrators and staff, shut our doors and not allowed public testimony, do you realize the kind of criticism we would face here in Annapolis?" the District 13 Democrat said. "It doesn't happen here. I don't expect it to happen in our county either."
Miller said that the manner in which the superintendent's contract renewal was conducted spoke to a "trust issue" and "greater concerns" about the school system.
"It's not normal activity for a board or public school system to do some of the things that they've been accused of," he said. "I hope that there is a change of a spirit, both at the school board and public school system, to be more open. Until there is, I think we all have to be vigilant about looking out for our constituents."
In response to the delegates' concerns, Giles acknowledged that the school system needs to take steps to become more open and communicative.
"I think that all of this has been as disturbing to me as it is to you, because we serve the public and every single student in Howard County," she said.
The problem, state Del. Terri Hill said, is that current school board members do not serve the public.
"It seems to me that they treat the public with absolute disdain, and then they go back to try to figure out how to manipulate within the system to treat them with disdain again," she said. "It's just really infuriating that the response we get from the school board as a whole is that there is no problem, and that the citizens and the rest of us must be imagining things."
The District 12 Democrat grew emotional as she spoke.
"We spent years to build a class school system with hard work from school board members, teachers, parents, paraeducators, county officials, all up and down," said Hill, who grew up in Howard County. "And it is very upsetting to me to feel like we are somehow having to stand on the sideline and watch all of that melt away."