Howard school system set to move forward after election

After a period of transition that saw its longtime school superintendent retire and infighting among school directors, members of the Howard County school community are hopeful that the new board members will work well together as they shape the county's education policy.

With incumbents Janet Siddiqui and Ellen Flynn Giles gaining re-election on Tuesday, the school board now has six members with at least two years' experience. And its lone newcomer, former teachers union president Ann De Lacy, has more than 30 years' experience in the school system.

The board's only departing member is Allen Dyer, who lost his re-election bid in the April primary. The panel is trying to have him removed and though he has about two months remaining in his term, he is battling those efforts. The board voted to ask the state Board of Education to oust Dyer last year, saying he had breached confidentiality requirements and bullied members and staff. The case is before an administrative law judge.

After the attempt to have Dyer removed, some board meetings were so tense that members of the community suggested that board members seek mediation to overcome their differences.

Dyer has repeatedly accused four on the seven-member panel — Giles, Siddiqui, Sandra French and Frank Aquino — of forming a voting bloc for much of its policies.

While it is unclear whether Dyer's assertion is accurate, some in the community anxiously await to see how well the board functions moving forward — particularly as it tackles matters such as redistricting and meeting the new common core standards.

Teachers union president Paul Lemle said that he saw members Brian Meshkin, Cindy Vaillancourt and Dyer often voting in the minority, even if not always for the same reason.

"I thought ... that they did seem to accept that it was their job sometimes to say no, this particular policy isn't good enough or this particular process didn't meet their approval," he said.

"It's always the majority supporting decisions of the superintendent, this one and the last one, and when there was disagreement it was always the same three," he said.

In addition to the infighting among board members, the school system that is often touted as one of the best in the country has gone through a period of change this school year. Longtime school Superintendent Sydney Cousin announced his retirement; the school board hired Renee Foose to take over. She started the job in July.

Some have credited Foose for setting the tone for the school system as a whole. Her plans call for greater transparency, which Dyer had stressed, and community engagement, which many parents and community leaders have sought.

"Part of reducing concern is better communication," said Howard PTA Council President Christina Delmont-Small, who added that she envisions that the school system and the Howard community as a whole will work together well "as long as we keep in mind our mission, which is doing what's best for each and every child."

Several of the board members dispute that a voting bloc exists.

Vaillancourt said that on most matters the board is in agreement, adding, "It's on the high-profile things, where we don't agree, where it tends to break into the 4-3 split. That tends to be on a philosophical divide where you either expect the board of education will take an active role in direction or you expect the board of education will support the recommendations of staff without questioning them."

Giles said that she believes "active discussion" is important to the board.

"When the board was unanimous, people accused us of being a rubber stamp. When the board has differences, then we're dysfunctional. I'm not sure whether there's not someplace in between the two," she said.

"But I think once the board makes a decision we move forward on that together, united as a board, to make sure that that plan is realized. And we have a good opportunity to do that."

Meshkin said that when he joined the panel two years ago he often saw the board vote in a 4-3 split, but said he now sees less divide.

"It isn't the same 4-3 split all the time, and I'm happy about that," Meshkin said. "There have been things that I have proposed that got voted down and later got approved. I think that's just part of the deliberative process of trying to convince my colleagues."

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