New Howard school board members praised for their 'incredible energy'

Jess Nocera
Contact ReporterHoward County Times

Howard County welcomed four new school board members Monday afternoon.

All said they are prepared to get to work and contribute to making decisions for the state’s sixth-largest school system and one of the highest achieving in the nation, based on test scores.

Vicky Cutroneo, Jen Mallo, Sabina Taj and Chao Wu, the top four winners in last month’s election, were sworn in before the school board’s regularly scheduled meeting.

They will tackle a variety of issues, including alleviating classroom crowding, building new schools, closing academic achievement gaps, and investing in more social and emotional safety measures for students.

Cutroneo, the former president of the PTA Council of Howard County and a former pediatric nurse, said she is grateful to Howard voters “for placing trust in me.”

While noting a current spirit of goodwill with the school board, Cutroneo said “the board should not be lulled into complacency, [we need] to continue asking questions.”

“I want to know what’s really going,” she said.

Serving in the past as the chairwoman and vice chairwoman of the school system’s Community Advisory Council, the liaison organization between the school board and community, Mallo

touted the success of the school board, stating the board is headed in the right direction.

The board has “improved morale and [has] solid decision making based on data and facts,” she said.

As an education foundation adviser who supports initiatives in kindergarten-to-12th grade, Taj said she is “excited to be working to serve the children of Howard County.”

“I ran on a platform of equity and representation and I want to do my best as serving all the children.”

Taj said she is looking forward to working with her fellow board members who “bring such unique and rich perspectives to the table.”

Wu, a data scientist and an engineer, said he is excited to join the board.

“We need to make sure we provide a quality education for all students in the county,” Wu said. “We need to make sure they [students] have an opportunity to succeed.”

Wu said the board needs to keep an open mind and secure a common sense of ground.

Schools Superintendent Michael Martirano said the new school board is bringing “incredible energy.”

“We are moving the school system forward in a very, very positive way,” Martirano said.

The four join school board members Mavis Ellis, Kirsten Coombs and Christina Delmont-Small, who were all elected in 2016, ousting incumbents who sought re-election and often sided with Renee Foose, the former county schools superintendent.

Ellis was chosen as the new chairwoman and Coombs was selected as vice chairwoman during Monday’s regular school board meeting. Ellis was previously the vice chairwoman.

Ellis, who said she believes she’s the first black to become chairwoman, highlighted the youthfulness of the board’s entirety.

“What we lack in experience we will make up in commitment,” Ellis said. “Our focus must be for all … to our community, we want to work with you.”

Three of the four outgoing members Cindy Vaillancourt, Bess Altwerger and Ananta Hejeebu attended the ceremony. Sandra French was not present. None of the incumbents ran for re-election.

Vaillancourt, who served on the school for two four-year terms and for two of those years as chairwoman, said she is leaving the school system “in good hands.”

Sharing some words of advice for the new members, Vaillancourt said if they “just do what they know is right in their heart, they won’t go wrong.”

The geographic makeup of the school board could change if a proposed state bill passes in the upcoming state legislative session.

The proposal would allow county voters to elect five of the seven school board members by councilmanic districts, with two members elected at-large. If passed, the bill would apply starting with the 2020 election, according to the proposed legislation.

A similar bill failed to clear in the 2016 session and last year, a bill was passed that altered the terms of some school board members.

In last month’s election, Cutroneo and Wu, the top two candidates, received the traditional four year term and Mallo and Taj, who came in third and fourth place respectively, will each serve a two-year term.

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