Shortly after a divided Baltimore County school board voted to hire Verletta White as superintendent last month, dissenting members began a lobbying effort to ask the state schools chief to do something none of her predecessors have done in at least a half-century.
The effort appears to have worked. Ten days after the board's 8-4 vote, Maryland Superintendent of Schools Karen Salmon blocked White's appointment. The move came after Salmon's office received 95 letters calling for that action, and just two supporting White.
Now White's supporters are embarking on their own effort to lobby Salmon to undo what they decried Thursday as unprecedented state overreach.
The tug of war over White began months ago, drawing deep divisions within the school board and the school community. Principals and administrators in White's camp showed up at board meetings, often holding white carnations, to testify on her behalf. Her opponents, meanwhile, raised questions about her ethics.
Most school boards vote on a superintendent in private, then have a unanimous public vote. In this case, the debate over White was fierce and public — as White, the acting superintendent, sat stoically between the warring sides at the boardroom table.
The battle over White also came amid a historic upheaval in the state's third-largest school district. Last month, former superintendent Dallas Dance became the system's only leader to be sentenced to jail for a criminal conviction and voters are preparing to cast ballots in the county's first-ever school board election this year.
Those seismic shifts are occurring as a minority of school board members — all appointed by Gov. Larry Hogan — have battled with a majority that has stood by White even as her ethics came under scrutiny.
"We have fundamentally excellent schools and very hard-working educators, but people are angry and frustrated with the chaos that is occurring at the top," said Baltimore County Councilman David Marks, a Perry Hall Republican. "Things would have been a lot better had we retained [White] as an interim until after the election and started over with a brand new board."
Marks said the frustration manifested on social media — especially on Facebook — like "electricity" after the board voted to hire White.
"It shows the power of social media," Marks said.
At a news conference Thursday to support White, county elected officials said no one is better qualified than White — who has been a student, teacher and administrator in the county schools — to lead the school system.
"For the state to impose their will above the will of the people of Baltimore County is absolutely, positively outrageous and shameful," said County Councilman Julian Jones.
Salmon's intervention was unprecedented, said Bernie Sadusky, who served a year as interim state superintendent and has worked in education in Maryland since 1969.
Maryland gives most of the power over education to local school systems, but it is one of the only places in the nation where the top state education official must approve local board decisions to hire superintendents.
Renee Spence, who worked as a lobbyist under former state schools chief Nancy Grasmick, said she does not remember Grasmick ever turning down the request of a local board, unless the candidate did not meet the certification required under law.
White's supporters thought they had won the battle and relaxed, not knowing the other side would soon start its lobbying effort.
"If anybody who was a supporter of Verletta White felt they needed to write a letter to make sure the state superintendent signed off on this, I think those letters would have numbered in the tens of thousands," said Tom DeHart, executive director of the union that represents Baltimore County school administrators. "We just figured it was a done deal."
DeHart found it astonishing that the board members who didn't get their way would try to sabotage the appointment.
Salmon has declined to be interviewed and has not said whether the lobbying effort influenced her decision. In her letter rejecting White's appointment, Salmon cited the same concerns raised by dissenting board members: White's ethics violations and the system's failure to audit how it awards contracts.
In the days after the school board's vote, members Julie Henn and Ann Miller encouraged parents and community members to email and call the state superintendent to urge her to use her authority to reject White's hiring. Del. Richard Impallaria, a Republican representing Baltimore and Harford counties, emailed his constituents to do the same.
"ALERT: State law requires the approval of the state superintendent before the county board's permanent superintendent can be appointed, which could happen at any time," Miller wrote on her Facebook page April 23.
"Concerned about the superintendent appointment? Be heard!" Henn wrote in her post the next day.
Many of Miller's and Henn's Facebook friends were concerned that the state school board, which was scheduled to meet on April 24, was going to vote that night on White's appointment. But once it was clear that the power rested with the state superintendent, they concentrated their efforts on Salmon.
The state board is made up entirely of Hogan appointees, who hired Salmon two years ago. While the Republican governor's challengers in this year's election have tried to portray Salmon's decision as a political ploy, Hogan officials say he exerts no influence over her decisions.
"Grassroots is what this was," said Kevin Leary, a Republican candidate for a House of Delegates seat in Baltimore County. "Salmon could have made the decision on her own, but I think all the letters and phone calls had something to do with it. I like to think that she actually listened to the community."
Henn also sent a letter directly to Salmon, asking her to "intervene" to nullify White's appointment.
"I implore you to disapprove the appointment of Verletta White to superintendent of Baltimore County Public Schools," Henn wrote in the letter, which she posted on Facebook.
She and the three other county board members who voted against White said the board majority rushed the decision — ignoring calls to conduct a national search and to consider a second interim year for White. Some critics, including Impallaria, wanted to wait until a newly elected board could have a say in what could be a years-long contract.
"The Baltimore County School Board consists of lame-duck appointees," Impallaria wrote in his email. "It would seem to be totally appropriate to wait until the new, elected school board members are in place."
Those opposed to White, who earns $265,000 this year, have cited her ethics violations as a reason not to hire her.
The school board's ethics panel found that White violated ethics rules by failing to disclose a consulting job with a company that represents education technology firms, including some with county contracts. The panel also ruled that White, 50, improperly used her "prestige of office" to obtain the part-time position.
That violation was the main reason Salmon gave for her decision.
"That breach of trust causes me pause as I consider whether to approve White as a permanent superintendent," Salmon wrote in her letter.
After Salmon's decision was made public on Wednesday by White, Miller and her Facebook friends praised Salmon.
"If you agree with the decision of Dr. Karen Salmon to not approve the permanent appointment of Verletta White, please consider sending her a thank you email," Miller wrote on Facebook.
Leary agreed, writing on Facebook: "I want to thank everyone that stood up to the system that pushed this appointment through and sent emails, called and voiced their concerns with the rushed appointment of Mrs. White."
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