Deborah Wessner expected Monday night's regular meeting of the Howard County PTA Council to be contentious. After all, the group would be scrutinizing a controversial amendment to the school superintendent's contract and, once again, the school board's compliance with state and local open-meetings laws.
But Wessner, the council president, never expected the scene that played out.
School board member James O'Donnell showed up at the meeting and scolded the PTA for its inquiry, calling it "a witch hunt."
"You're not acting responsibly," he said at one point. "You don't trust the school board. Let's get at it right here, right now."
And so they did, in one of the longest council meetings in more than a decade, showcasing tensions that had built up for more than two years. O'Donnell accused the PTA of bias and said he felt "disrespected." School board member Virginia W. Charles, also a PTA member, sat in the back of the room, breathing deeply and shaking her head in disbelief. Parents invoked sunshine laws and the Freedom of Information Act.
This is what it has come to in typically well-mannered Howard County, one of the wealthiest counties in the state and known for its high-performing schools.
The school board has a track record of shying away from public arguments. Most of its votes are unanimous. But in recent months, it has not been immune to the infighting that has plagued other counties such as Prince George's, where the politics got so messy this year that the state dissolved the elected Board of Education and replaced it with an appointed panel.
After nearly four hours Monday night, the Howard PTA Council passed five motions. They call on the state attorney general to review the school board's closed meetings for the past year, including whether sufficient public notice was given, and its pledge to renew Superintendent John O'Rourke's contract in 2004. They also seek tighter standards for how minutes of the board's closed meetings are handled.
Under the contract amendment, O'Rourke, who had been courted by the school system in Greenwich, Conn., would receive a year's salary -- nearly $200,000 -- as compensation if the board did not renew his contract.
The clash with O'Donnell was the latest and most explosive episode in a 2 1/2-year saga over open meetings that began as one resident's crusade.
In the summer of 2000, Allen Dyer, a lawyer from Ellicott City, asked the state Open Meetings Compliance Board to investigate accusations that the Howard school board improperly held closed meetings with then-Superintendent Michael Hickey, without notifying the public or publishing minutes in a timely manner.
The PTA quickly signed on to the effort, sending the compliance board a letter of its own. Near the end of that year, Dyer sued the school board over the alleged open-meetings violations. In February 2001, the compliance board ruled against the school board but did not have the power to force change. Meanwhile, the lawsuit drags on.
"This school board has been shown in the past to lose faith with this county . . . and this seems to just reiterate that," said Rosemary Mortimer, who was on the PTA special committee that investigated the matter and headed a similar committee two years ago.
O'Donnell wasn't around during the first round of controversy; he was appointed to the board in January after a member resigned. By that time, the issue had been put on the back burner.
But it flared again last month. That's when Charles publicly accused the four other school board members of "deliberately and willfully" breaking the law by holding closed meetings at which she says the board voted to approve the pledge to extend O'Rourke's contract. She says that the vote should have been held in public and that the contract amendment is illegal and should not have been discussed until 2004, when O'Rourke's contract expires.
"There is no doubt in my mind that this resolution has been introduced . . . to circumvent the meaning and intentions of our current law," Charles said at the board's public meeting the next day.
O'Rourke's contract amendment was modeled after that of Montgomery County School Superintendent Jerry D. Weast. The issue barely registered on the public radar in Montgomery.
But in Howard, it sparked a firestorm. Parents' Internet mailing lists read like legal tomes rivaling Black's Law Dictionary. The board dropped its request for legislation that would bring stringent local open-meetings requirements in line with state law. Meanwhile, Del. Elizabeth Bobo (D-Howard) drafted a bill to tighten the county's open-meetings laws.
"We went through this two years ago," said Brooke Schumm, an Ellicott City resident and PTA delegate. "Essentially, we were told things would improve . . . and, of course, events seem to have repeated themselves."
But Jane B. Schuchardt, the school board chairman, has defended the board's decisions. "Statements are being made about the Board of Education and about the superintendent which are absolutely incorrect . . . [and] question the character of both," she said at last week's board meeting. She added that the meetings "did not violate the Open Meetings Act or any other law."
O'Donnell handed out copies of Schuchardt's statement at Monday night's PTA meeting. That should explain everything, he said, without the need to seek outside counsel.
But it wasn't enough for many parents and the PTA Council. They had a barrage of questions: What goes on during what they say are hastily announced closed meetings with the superintendent? Why are minutes from open meetings not published until months later? Should there have been more public discussion of O'Rourke's contract?
"We are not standing here to tell you yea or nay" on these issues, said June Cofield, executive vice president of the county PTA Council and chairman of the four-person committee that investigated the matter. "We're standing here to ask the questions of the experts."
O'Donnell remained unconvinced. "Your questions are accusations," he said.