This column appears in the April edition of The Business Monthly.
By Len Lazarick
School board elections in Howard County are often snoozy affairs, marked by muted debate on education issues that engage PTAs and the teacher’s union. But this year’s nonpartisan primary for three seats on the seven-member board is the most politicized and intense in recent memory.
The unusual heat in this race was spotlighted last month by an utterly remarkable campaign kickoff for two of the rowdiest and outspoken of the eight challengers to the three incumbents seeking reelection.
At the Glory Days Grill, in Ellicott City, the event for Christina Delmont-Small and Vicky Cutroneo was packed with conservative Republicans, and liberal Democrats, too. Del. Warren Miller, the western Howard County Republican, introduced the pair, and Howard County Council chairman Calvin Ball, a reliably liberal black Democrat from Columbia, was on hand to lend his support.
The uniting theme for the event and the previous months of contention between legislators and the school superintendent and the board was one of the oldest political campaign messages: Throw the bums out. Of course, in Howard County, home of those tame “Choose Civility” bumper stickers, nobody publicly calls the incumbents bums, but the anger is palpable.
“A year ago I didn’t think this was even possible,” Ball said, referring to the serious challenge to the school board incumbents.
The anger may have been brewing for some time, but the spark that inflamed the citizenry and their representatives at the state level was mold at Glenwood Middle School and the school system’s slow response to eradicating it.
That event and the system’s weak reaction produced an unusual coalition of people for an evening of complaint last fall that was organized with the help of Miller and Del. Frank Turner, a Columbia Democrat who is usually on the opposite side of issues with Miller. (“Liberal” and “Columbia Democrat” are considered redundant in Howard County.)
The issue became so intense that it even attracted the attention of Gov. Larry Hogan, who grilled Howard County Superintendent Renee Foose when she came before the Board of Public Works in February, seeking school construction money.
“There’s a palpable loss of trust between many parents and the county school system and, in particular, with the superintendent,” Hogan said at the meeting.
Democratic Comptroller Peter Franchot, who becomes rabid over the issue of poor school maintenance, joined in the interrogation of Foose. (Mark Newgent, Hogan’s staff member for the Board of Public Works, has children in Howard County schools.)
What really brought the opposition to a head was the renewing by the school board of Foose’s contract for another four years as superintendent. Citizens who tried to attend the meeting at which the official vote on the contract occurred said they couldn’t get into the room because it was filled with central office staff who work for Foose. Howard County legislators were outraged by what they heard from constituents.
“What if we tried to do something like that” in Annapolis, said Turner. The remarkably bipartisan, biracial, cross-ideological opposition to the board incumbents up for reelection reflects the unifying nature of support for Howard County schools.
By all external measures, the schools in the county are some of the best in the state, meaning they’re some of the best public schools in the country. People move to Howard County for the public schools — some of them from as far away as Korea, to join the large Korean communities around the “best” schools. Based on test scores, the “bad” schools in Howard County would be considered among the better schools in other counties.
For a population as affluent as Howard County, with the highest median income in Maryland, there are comparatively few private schools, because the public schools are so good.
Maintaining good public schools is a fundamental community ideal in Howard County that unites across party lines and ideology. Howard County’s state representatives have grown frustrated with top leaders of the current system.
Election by district
Not only did Miller and Turner get involved, but so did first-term Del. Vanessa Atterbeary. She proposed legislation to have most of the board elected by district, rather than at-large, countywide. That was strongly resisted by the current board and the superintendent, but was supported by eight of the nine delegates; it was blocked by two of the three Howard County senators.
The lack of cooperation and the withholding of documents on the mold issue also led the delegation to propose legislation to pry open the information, with Miller taking the lead. Hogan signed the bill, HB1105, Tuesday. It requires an investigation by the new state public information ombudsman into the school system’s release of information. Apparently, major parts of a consultant’s report on special education are also being withheld.
If there already were not enough friction with the school system, the budget as proposed by Foose and passed by the board asks the county for $68 million more than it got last year, a 12.6% increase. (The school system will only get 4.7% more from the state.)
County Executive Allan Kittleman has told them that he is expecting only $32 million more in revenues, less than half of what they are asking just for schools.
As much as he says he supports education as a bedrock of county well-being, Kittleman can’t give what he does not have. The county council, which can override any cuts Kittleman makes in the school budget, cannot pass an unbalanced budget. Spending cannot exceed revenues.
The nonpartisan school board primary is the only one that all of Howard County’s 203,000 registered voters can participate in. That includes the 49,000 voters who are not a member of any party or belong to a minor third party such as the Libertarian or the Green Party.
The way this election works is a little unusual, too. Voters can vote for only three candidates, but the six top vote-getters go on the ballot for the general election.
Two of the incumbents, Ellen Flynn Giles and Janet Siddiqui, are both finishing 10 years on the board and are facing their fourth election. With the anti-incumbent vote split among eight challengers, it is hard to imagine Giles and Siddiqui not surviving a primary against a field of unknowns, no matter how strong the backing some opponents may have from the teachers’ union or elected officials who are not on the ballot this year.
The union, the Howard County Education Association, has endorsed three of the challengers for its apple ballot: Delmont-Small, Kirsten Coombs and Mavis Ellis. Ann DeLacy, a former head of the union who is finishing her first term, is probably the most vulnerable incumbent, having alienated many of her former teacher colleagues with her votes and comments.
The continuing contention concerning the school board and its superintendent is likely to continue into the fall election.