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Howard School Superintendent Faces Contract Renewal Opposition

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Approaching the end of her first term as Howard County Public School System (HCPSS) superintendent, Renee Foose had until Feb. 1 to inform the Board of Education of her intent to seek a contract renewal.

While that decision came too late to be included as fact in this issue of The Business Monthly, the superintendent’s speaking engagements during the past months indicate that’s a foregone conclusion.

As much as her administration’s undeniable achievements can be measured, there is an accompanying mass of negative sentiment being inveighed by dissatisfied parents and community advocates seeking to block Foose’s follow-on term.

Advocates on both sides of the argument held competing events in December and January, each dragging heavy reinforcements into the fray.

Education Town Hall

Maryland Delegates Warren Miller (R-9A) and Frank Turner (D-13) hosted an education-focused town hall meeting at Howard Community College in December. Courtney Watson, a former board of education member and former county council member, moderated the meeting. A number of school board members and county legislative delegation members also attended.

“We’ve heard countless stories of problems with the Howard County Board of Education, the superintendent’s office and other issues at our schools,” said Miller. Both he and Del. Vanessa Atterbeary (D-13) are sponsoring bills in this year’s General Assembly that address county school concerns.

Atterbeary’s legislation would require five of the seven school board members to be elected from within the county’s councilmanic districts. Currently, all are elected at large.

Miller’s bill targets transparency, requiring the school system’s records custodian to sign an oath when asserting that documents requested by the public do not exist. It also would require school officials to seek court approval before refusing to release inter-agency memoranda and inform the state’s attorney general when withholding documents excepted under the Maryland Public Information Act.

Speakers at the town hall alleged that serious incidents of student bullying have gone unchecked, contributing to two suicides, and claimed that the school’s policy toward special needs and autistic students amounts to babysitting, rather than level-appropriate educational instruction.

Cuts in paraeducator staffing and media secretaries have resulted in a lack of support for classes and students, said parent Ginny Gick, adding “yet, somehow we still find money for board members to go on trips to China.”

Mold Issue

Sue Faustino testified that each of her three children who attended Glenwood Middle School experienced allergy symptoms that cleared up when they left the school.

“My complaint is that the mold at Glenwood was hidden from us,” she said. “I keep hearing that … teachers can’t speak up for fear of their jobs. I simply want to know if this is true.”

Other parents charged that school officials misrepresented the mold as a maintenance issue, rather than a health concern. The issue has provided a rallying cry for an online petition sponsored by Lisa Markovitz, owner of a financial agency in Ellicott City and president of the People’s Voice advocacy group.

To date, the “Cut Foose Loose” petition asking that the school board deny the superintendent’s contract renewal has gathered more than 1,400 signatures. In addition to mold and bullying problems, the petition cites a decision to suspend the school system’s Citizens Operating Budget Review Committee as having a detrimental impact on taxpayers.

It also asserts that elimination of the HCPSS in-house attorney resulted in higher costs for outside attorneys who are driven by personal financial incentives, and questions the hiring of an Ethics Panel attorney who was fired by the Prince George’s County Public School System for unauthorized use of school funds.

“Is Howard County’s school system stellar in many ways?” Markovitz asked the crowd assembled at the town hall. “Yes, but it is so in spite of leadership problems.”

Superintendent’s Response

Foose responded to the town hall through a press release in which she pledged commitment to strengthening communication with parents and community stakeholders, and announced improvements in the way the school communicates.

Since the town hall, she said, the school system has provided a new “Contact Us” link on www.hcpss.org. It now provides access to a new web form for Maryland Public Information Act requests, and added a link to the school system’s “Funding Accountability and Transparency” web site via the “Trending Topics” menu on the HCPSS home page.

Additionally, the school system has taken steps to add direct contact links for the board members assigned to each school in the “About” section of each school web site.

Foose has thus far declined to comment on the petition or the concerns it raises, choosing instead to let the overview of her administration’s new initiatives and programs speak for themselves.

It was those elements on display at a January program at Turf Valley, presented by HCPSS and the Bright Minds Foundation, an independent nonprofit organization focused on enhancing educational opportunities for Howard County students.

Two prominent speakers — University of Maryland Baltimore County President Freeman Hrabowski and Sage Policy Group CEO Anirban Basu — provided a glimpse of the business and economic impact that the school system exerts, locally and globally.

Economic Impact

Hrabowski said the superintendent’s decision to use the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD)’s benchmark assessments to measure performance against students in other countries has had a positive influence on county math scores.

“Your county is doing better than most in this country,” he said, tempering his assessment with the observation that a large student population from international backgrounds also contributes to this boost.

In fact, said Foose, many of the county’s high schools outperformed the highest-performing nations in the world, including Korea, Finland, Singapore and China. “All of our schools outperformed the U.S. average,” she said. “We had similar results when we looked at math and when we looked at science. Our students are doing very well internationally, but I agree we can do better.”

In 2014, after learning of a return-on-investment study of the Anne Arundel County Public School System, the Howard County Board of Education hired Basu to conduct a similar study on the value the school system returns to the community.

“We’ve come up with a total economic impact of $1.85 billion per annum, several times what the county contributes to the school budget,” Basu said.

The school system accounts for 13,000 jobs and corresponding employee compensation of approximately $550 million per year, “and it’s a partial measure,” he said. “[E]nhanced quality of life, reduced reliance on government programs, improved labor force, lower crime, more citizen engagement, some of those things are hard to put a dollar value on.”

In conducting his assessment, Basu said he also looked at the impact of higher performing schools on home values.

For a sample $429,000 average value home, he said, the study determined that a one-point increase in test scores boosts home value by $1,000. That may not sound like much, but it equates to a per-home difference of $56,270 between identical homes whose only difference is location near a top or bottom performing school based on 2013 assessment scores.

“I’m not capturing the high school test scores or graduation rates, just elementary test scores,” Basu said. “It’s a really powerful result.”

Evolving Education

During the program, Foose announced the introduction of her new $838.7 million budget to the Howard County Board of Education, which represents an 8% increase over the current year’s approved budget.

“The reason is we’re moving forward, we have a lot to do, and we don’t have a lot of time to do it,” she said. “Education is the slowest institution to move into the 21st century. By the time our current eighth graders are graduating, our schools should feel different than they feel now.”

New policies being pursued by school administration include teaching children to code in elementary school, incorporating so-called flexbooks written by teachers who are being encouraged to develop their own resources and teaching materials, and world language instruction that begins in Kindergarten and provides daily Spanish instruction for students.

Foose predicted an increase in math and literacy outcomes as a result of literacy skills developed while learning a language, “and the benefit is, our students will be multilingual.”

She also urged school-to-business collaboration. “I want all our high school students one day to have an internship experience as part of their graduation requirement,” Foose said. “Not just where they file papers, but work … learning your business, your trade and those [interactive] skills.”

The Board of Education will begin the first public work session on the superintendent’s proposed Fiscal Year 2017 Operating Budget on Feb. 4, at 1 p.m., in the board room at the county’s Department of Education.

Following the announcement of Foose’s intentions regarding her current contract, which expires in June, board members will be required to vote on acceptance of an extension by March 1.