Five challengers and one incumbent are vying for three seats on Howard County's school board in a contested election challengers believe is key to salvage lost accountability and transparency in the school system's leadership.
The election of at least two new faces to the board could change the dynamic of the seven-member board, which has come under fire from parents, educators and some local elected officials who allege the current school board and superintendent have ignored community input.
All the challengers — Kirsten Coombs, Christina Delmont-Small, Mavis Ellis, Vicky Cutroneo and Robert Miller — contend Superintendent Renee Foose's contract should not have been renewed in February.
Janet Siddiqui, an incumbent on the board since 2007, however, said the process for Foose's contract renewal was not different from prior superintendents.
"We took input from the community," Siddiqui said, adding that the board is operating in accordance with all state policies.
Two other board members running for re-election, Ann De Lacy and Ellen Flynn Giles, did not make it successfully through the primary election.
Siddiqui said she was concerned about the political climate in the board race. Social media, she said, is fueling lies and misinformation.
"I've never seen such contention. … In the past, we had our individual campaigns and debated the issues," Siddiqui said.
Challengers, who have each to varying degrees staked their campaign platforms on rebuilding trust in leadership, said the election of new board members will shake up the school board by opening up more opportunities for stakeholder feedback and critical questions from board members.
Coombs, who garnered the most votes in the primary, hopes that relationship will not be adversarial.
"This isn't personal," Coombs said. "This is about protecting our kids and that's why I hope people are voting for me. You can be professional, but agree to disagree."
Miller, a retired teacher of 34 years, said the public is open to accepting decisions they do not agree with — if they feel their input is heard and considered.
The relationship between the school system's leadership, the county council, funding authorities and the county executive is so strained that it is "hurting the school system," he said.
"When people feel they have not been heard, they often get angry. That's the problem with the majority of the board now," Miller said. "The [school] staff feel like their positions could be threatened if they go against 'company policy.'"
The release of a routine state audit last week reinvigorated challengers' concerns about financial transparency. Among other findings, the audit found the school system failed to follow proper procedures for millions in contracts with construction firms, mileages and salaries for executive staff.
The school system disputed those findings. In a letter to the state auditors, school board Chairwoman Christine O'Connor wrote the auditors' were "inexperienced" and the audit was "imbalanced."
Coombs, the parent of a county student who has 20 years of accounting experience, said her expertise in business is essential to making careful decisions about the school system's budget.
Her top priority is developing a strong relationship between educators and the school system's leadership, she said.
"I want to be a sounding post for those educators and let them know they have somebody who is going to stand for them," Coombs said.
Cutroneo, who also has three children in county schools, advocated for the state legislation that led called on the state's ombudsman to investigate the school system's handling of public information requests.
She said her priority would be oversight of the school system's $808 million operating budget. In May, the Howard County Council and the Kittleman administration refused to fully fund the school system's record high request.
"I don't think we can talk about the other issues that are pressing without really knowing about how we're spending our money," Cutroneo said. "I think that the budget crisis is not the amount of money, it's how you're spending it."
Siddiqui said she wants to gather more stakeholder input on the school system's budget priorities prior to the next budget season.
To address misconceptions in the community, Siddiqui said it is critical to sit down face-to-face and address community concerns.
"Let's talk about it. You don't have to go to your local legislator and get things passed," Siddiqui said.
Siddiqui said her experience as a pediatrician allows her to continue to be an advocate for students' education and health. The incumbent recognized the school system could have better communicated issues related to mold in county schools.
She hopes to tackle the achievement gap, implement unconscious bias training for educators of students as young as pre-K and ensure the curriculum reflects the county's diversity.
For Delmont-Small, a parent who served on the county PTA council's board of directors and the school system's budget oversight committee, building lost trust is a priority.
The school board must "reassert its position of having oversight over the superintendent and the board needs to then determine whether or not the superintendent is handling the operations of the school system," Delmont-Small said.
"Unfortunately, over time, I observed and experienced that the superintendent and the school system were pushing the parents and the educators and the stakeholders out of the decision making process and that there was no back and forth," she said.
"I'm not afraid to ask the hard questions," she said. "I'll listen. I will determine the facts."
Ellis said her nine years of experience serving on the board of directors of various organizations, will allow her to work collaboratively with other board members.
"I'm concerned about the culture of the board of education and the superintendent. That needs to change," Ellis said. "With the new board members coming in, there will be a change of focus that will require information to be shared with board members first. If board members don't have access to information, how can the community?"
Miller said the board needs that trust to work for the community. He hopes to build in more one-on-one time between parents and teachers by reducing standardized testing, unnecessary meetings and less stringent evaluation systems.
Regardless of who is elected, Miller hopes the new board members can direct the superintendent instead of "being directed by her."
"At least four of us would need to be on the same page to bring on the same change," he said. "Fortunately, I'm optimistic that will happen."