Maryland officials have denied community requests to remove three school board members in an Eastern Shore county following an uproar over the ousting of a popular superintendent.
In three opinions announced late Tuesday, the Maryland State Board of Education found that the requests — from more than 30 Queen Anne’s County residents — were not factually or legally sufficient to warrant removal of the board’s relatively new majority. By law, such action may be taken for such reasons as immorality, misconduct in office, incompetence and willful neglect of duty.
The state board found that some of what the board members did in recent months — during and after heated confrontations at public meetings regarding the decision not to renew the school superintendent’s contract — was inappropriate and unprofessional. It condemned one school board member’s racially tinged public comment, cautioned another about her posts on social media, and urged the board members to be more “open, receptive and respectful to the views of the public” during important debates.
But the state board also found that nothing the board members did rose to the level of removal, noting that this was the first time it has considered a community-led effort to remove school board members from office; such requests usually come directly from school boards, according to the opinions.
“The decision on whether to retain a superintendent is a quintessential local issue, entrusted to the board members who were voted into office by the citizens of the county,” the board wrote in each of the three opinions. “Elections provide an ultimate check on whether the citizens approve of the decisions made by their elected representatives. The State Board’s removal authority is not meant to be a citizen recall.”
Arlene Taylor, one of the three members who were the subject of complaints to the state, said late Tuesday that she had not yet reviewed the opinions. The other two — Annette DiMaggio and Jennifer George — did not respond to requests for comment.
Some who opposed the board members and joined the state complaint said they were dismayed by the state board’s findings but not completely surprised.
“It was a lot to ask them to remove school board members,” said L. Michelle Johnson, a Queen Anne’s parent, noting that such removals are rare.
The controversy in the semirural county of 50,000, just east of the Chesapeake Bay Bridge, dates to February, when a recently elected three-member school board majority decided not to renew the contract of Superintendent Carol Williamson, a well-regarded educator who had been in charge for eight years and had served the school system for more than two decades. Queen Anne’s has 7,700 students and 14 public schools.
Williamson, 71, was a familiar face at school events and community gatherings and had no plans to retire as she neared the end of a second four-year contract. Many assumed that she would continue in her job, feeling the school system was strong and headed in the right direction.
As the community learned that the board had voted 3-2, in a closed session, not to renew Williamson’s contract, residents packed school board meetings, assailing what many said was a secret move. They pushed for the chance to give input and demanded that the board explain its decision.
Members of the board who voted against Williamson have said little but have hinted at concerns that there are too few minority teachers and that academic achievement had stagnated. State board documents show that Queen Anne’s school board members have not wanted to discuss their rationale, citing it as a personnel matter, but one cited a need for change, and another described what she saw as a lack of academic progress as a factor.
Williamson, the outgoing superintendent, works her final day this week. The Queen Anne’s board appointed the system’s assistant superintendent, Gregory Pilewski, as an interim schools chief while it conducts a search for a new leader.
The three state board opinions, each 12 to 19 pages long, parsed allegations that the board members violated open meetings laws and ethics rules, engaged in improper behavior at board meetings, disregarded public comment, lacked an explanation for the superintendent decision, and made threats against employees.
While the opinions noted that the board was permitted to discuss the superintendent’s contract in closed session, they pointed out that the state’s Open Meetings Compliance Board had found that the board had violated open meetings laws in the process.
The state board also took issue with some board members’ actions, even as they did not conclude that those actions amounted to official misconduct.
The opinion regarding complaints against DiMaggio said that social-media posts she published during the debate — including calling out an individual for what she considered bullying — showed “a certain lack of professionalism” and advised that her conduct “reflects not just on her, but on the board as a whole.”
The state board’s opinion about Taylor, the board’s only African American member, said some residents interpreted comments she made about race to mean that the superintendent was not renewed because she is white. While state officials did not conclude that Taylor’s decision was linked to the superintendent’s race, they found that Taylor was wrong to describe the county board as “lily-white.”
“That type of language has no place in public discourse and we strongly condemn it,” the state board wrote in the opinion.
State board members also noted, in the opinion relating to complaints about George, that allegations of the board not listening to members of the public who disagreed are serious concerns. The board advised that Queen Anne’s members “be open, receptive, and respectful to the views of the public especially when controversial decisions are being made.”
Bryan Holocker, who was active in the removal effort, said he is worried about retaliation against district staff members who supported Williamson and spoke against the board. His wife, Angela, is the principal at Matapeake Middle School in Stevensville, and she filed one of the first state complaints against the three school board members in March, accusing them of “multiple examples of misconduct and willful neglect.”
“I’m exceedingly disappointed,” Bryan Holocker said.