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What next for Howard schools?

Tuesday's departure of Renee Foose from her job as superintendent of the Howard County Public School System may have been abrupt, but it was certainly not unexpected. The relationship between the embattled administrator and the county's school board had become so toxic — with dueling lawsuits and public recriminations — that a divorce of some kind was overdue. Yet much like the dissolution of a marriage, lingering questions remain, particularly over how much collateral damage may have been done to one of Maryland's finest school systems.

The $1.65 million payout Ms. Foose received may be eye-popping, but it was likely unavoidable given the mounting legal fees and tensions between the two sides. It clearly didn't have to come to this. The previous school board chose to renew Ms. Foose's contract on a 5-2 vote just 15 months ago — giving her a raise. How the county's first female superintendent went from hero to zero so quickly is almost entirely the product of last fall's election (and the influence of a teacher's union that sought her ouster) that produced the three members who fundamentally changed the board's point of view from cheering her performance to refusing to work with her.

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Ms. Foose's replacement is Michael J. Martirano, an experienced former Howard County school administrator who most recently served as state superintendent in West Virginia and now takes the title of acting superintendent in Howard. If he wants to make a positive first impression on the community (and not just Ms. Foose's vocal detractors) he should pledge support for his predecessor's educational priorities — particularly her desire to address racial disparities within the system. Whatever one might think of Ms. Foose as an administrator — many viewed her style as autocratic, and even her supporters had to admit the former state trooper was no natural born (or politically connected) glad-hander — she was correct to focus on underperforming students and schools. Indeed, under her tenure, graduation rates and college prep test scores have gone up, expulsions of African American students are down, and by most any academic metrics, the system remains Maryland's finest.

The controversies that dogged Ms. Foose's five years, such as her handling of mold in Glenwood Middle School, the tardy central office responses to public information requests and her tough stance on outside special education placements, riled quite a few parents, but it was her fraught relationship with teachers that most likely forced her retirement. A survey conducted during the current school year by the Howard County Education Association found only 10.8 percent of members had confidence in Ms. Foose's leadership compared to 66.5 percent who had faith in the school board. Only the union's leadership fared better (with 92.6 percent of teachers expressing solidarity with the HCEA). Deserved or not, the loss of confidence among teachers pointed to a serious problem.

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Howard County Executive Allan Kittleman has said the continued discord was "not productive" and threatened to "negatively impact students, teachers and parents," but one has to wonder whether some damage has already been done. An internecine battle as ugly and petty as the one Howard just experienced (trading blows over outside legal bills or whether to fund a program that granted scholarships to McDaniel College students aimed at diversifying Howard's teaching corps, to name two recent low-points) can't be good for the brand. Running Howard schools should be viewed as the plum of superintendent jobs in Maryland given the system's success. It doesn't look like so welcoming right now.

And what about the school board? Its members have certainly demonstrated they can buy out a superintendent with tax dollars (the equivalent of the combined salaries of two dozen Maryland public school teachers), but can they do the real business of a board and improve on Ms. Foose's legacy and produce better educational outcomes? Right now, they should be working harder to get Mr. Kittleman to loosen the purse strings — his proposed school budget is a substantial $54 million less than what the board had sought.

Curiously, Ms. Foose and Dallas Dance, who recently announced his resignation as superintendent in Baltimore County, were finalists for the same jobs when they were both hired for their respective posts in 2012. Like Ms. Foose, Mr. Dance has sought to improve outcomes for minority students but resigned recently after much conflict with a board that has become increasingly antagonistic toward him. Were the two counties dealing with dysfunctional superintendents or dysfunctional boards? For now, mark the grades for all involved as incomplete.

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