Howard County school board needs to grow up

The Howard County Board of Education claims its mission is to “provide leadership for excellence in teaching and learning by fostering a climate for deliberative change through policy and community engagement.”

Besides the nature of the “deliberative change” they’re seeking, I wonder about exactly where in that pursuit this alleged behavior fits: making homophobic remarks, hiring an attorney to bully school system employees and inducing “a sense of fear in central office staff.”

As Baltimore Sun reporter Tim Prudente details, those are among the charges made by the Howard County Office of Human Rights against certain board members, including Chairwoman Cynthia Vaillancourt.

She, and others named in three lengthy reports obtained by Mr. Prudente, dispute the accusations against them as a smear campaign. But it wouldn’t be the first time the Howard County school board acted undignified and, dare I say, juvenile.

Back in the early 2000s, when I covered Howard County education as a reporter, board members often engaged in back-biting and paranoia. They passed notes in public, imagined conspiracies, and accused one another of violating state open meetings laws and of undermining the school system superintendent (whom they later forced out — with a buyout that amounted to less than a tenth of the $1.65 million package the current board gave Superintendent Renee Foose to leave in 2017). I distinctly remember one board member crying during a phone interview.

Yet, despite the sniping and rumor mongering, there was still a general sense that quality education was at the heart of the board’s operations and professional relations. That doesn’t seem to be the case anymore.

The machinations of the Howard County board — and the dysfunctional Baltimore County school board, for that matter — appear petty and political by comparison.

In Baltimore County, two board members went behind the backs of the others to scuttle an effort to make the interim superintendent permanent. And in Howard County, board members intimidated, ridiculed, demeaned and discriminated against three of Ms. Foose’s favorite employees after she was ousted, according to the human rights reports.

Board members Christina Delmont-Small and Cynthia Vaillancourt “openly expressed homophobic beliefs as a reason to remove Dr. Foose, and by extension her staff,” investigator Cheryl Brower wrote.

Is this the climate for deliberative change the board wants to foster? I suppose it could be, if the desired change is to ultimately stain the reputation of one of the country’s best school systems by sowing bias and hate. Someone even tied a balloon to Ms. Foose’s mailbox after she left, reading “Don’t get well soon.”

The work of a board of education is important: Members set the school district’s educational direction; they craft and amend policies, supervise the superintendent, adopt and oversee the budget, and direct the collective bargaining process for district employees. It requires grown-up sensibilities.

Unfortunately in Howard County, some board members appear to still be children.

Tricia Bishop is The Sun's deputy editorial page editor. Her column runs every other Friday. Her email is tricia.bishop@baltsun.com; Twitter: @triciabishop.

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