The superintendent of schools in Howard County, Md., has filed a lawsuit against members of her school board, alleging that they have unlawfully interfered with her authority and created chaos and uncertainty in a high-performing suburban school system.
Renee A. Foose took the legal action this week in an unusual move amid heightened political tensions in the system of 54,870 students after November’s election, which seated a new majority on the board.
Foose’s complaint alleges that “at least one” board member made disparaging comments about her based on beliefs about Foose’s sexual orientation, questioning the ability “to support our kids if we have a lesbian superintendent” and suggesting she could get what she wanted from the previous all-female board at the time because she was probably sleeping with them.
Three newcomers joined the board in December after incumbents lost in the primary and general elections. According to Foose’s complaint, the newly elected members and two other members publicly pledged to remove Foose from office almost immediately. Howard has an eight-member school board that includes one student member.
Foose says in the complaint that Howard’s new board majority quickly sought to limit her powers in December, passing eight resolutions within an hour of taking office, “many of which were designed to misappropriate the superintendent’s lawful authority” as the district’s top administrator.
The board directed her not to confer with legal counsel on matters necessary to day-to-day operations; usurped her authority to hire and fire certain employees; and prevented her from attending board meetings she is legally required to attend, the complaint says.
“Almost immediately after taking office on December 5, 2016, and in the weeks thereafter, the board has taken action to prevent the superintendent from discharging her legal duty to administer and manage” Howard schools, the complaint says.
In Foose’s complaint, filed in Howard County Circuit Court, she alleges that the board’s “illegal actions” are stirring turmoil and jeopardizing the orderly administration of public education in Howard County.”
Board members largely disagreed with her claims, voting 5 to 2 at meeting Thursday night to adopt resolutions opposing Foose’s positions, with the student member abstaining.
Cynthia L. Vaillancourt, the board’s chairman, prefaced the discussion by saying that letters from Foose and her attorney suggest that Foose has the sole authority to interpret and apply laws that affect the school system; to invalidate board actions with which she disagrees; to approve or reject the board’s choice of legal counsel; and to hire, fire and oversee staff members who report to the board. Vaillancourt also said Foose asserts that the board is prohibited from issuing directives to the school system and its staff.
Vaillancourt recommended that members of the board “reject these representations and the Superintendent’s attempt to exercise ultimate authority of the school system.” In later deliberations, she spoke of working to collaborate with Foose by adjusting some previously passed resolutions.
Vaillancourt declined to comment Friday, saying she had not seen the lawsuit, and five other board members did not respond to requests for comment. Board member Christine O’Connor, who supported Foose’s contract renewal and is now part of the two-member minority, said she views Foose’s legal action as important.
“I do feel it was a bold and necessary action to show her strength and leadership,” she said. “These board members never even attempted to work collaboratively with her.”
O’Connor said she could not divulge what happens in closed board sessions but commented that “the animosity is palpable toward” Foose. She said she hopes that over time, the board and the superintendent will come to “some sort of amicable terms” for the good of county students.
Foose declined to comment beyond what is contained in the lawsuit, though she said through a spokesman that she believes no one should be discriminated against “based upon how they look, where they’re from or who they love.”
“Howard County has a reputation for inclusiveness and civility,” said John White, a spokesman for Howard County schools. “As such, she believes the Board of Education should be focused on increasing student achievement and opportunities for youth, not her private life.”
White said the purpose of Foose’s lawsuit “is to make sure she and the board fulfill their statutorily defined roles and work together for the benefit of all students.”
School board decisions regarding superintendents have made waves across the country in recent years, and there have been high-profile controversies involving other Maryland districts in the past two years. Last year, a new majority on the Queen Anne’s County school board ousted its long-standing schools superintendent, Carol Williamson, setting off a community battle over what some saw as a secret, capricious move. Williamson later landed one of Maryland’s top education posts, as chief academic officer and deputy state superintendent.
In 2015, the Montgomery County School Board privately lost faith in the schools superintendent, Joshua P. Starr, and in a surprising move did not renew his contract. And Baltimore officials were criticized last year for launching a superintendent search without telling the public.
School boards trying to shift political power also have run afoul of their communities for other reasons. In Colorado’s Jefferson County, residents instigated a recall against three board members who wanted to weaken the teachers union and boost charter schools. The recall effort succeeded.
Foose argues that she cannot be ousted by the board majority under state laws that reserve that power for the state superintendent and cite specific grounds for removal during a term in office, among them immorality, misconduct, insubordination and willful neglect of duty.
The struggle comes with Foose in the first year of a new four-year contract. She had already served in the post four years when she was reappointed by a board majority no longer in control.
Under her guidance as superintendent, she says, the county school system has posted the highest achievement in Maryland “on state and national measures for the last three years,” boasting the lowest class sizes and highest paid teachers and support staff in the state.
She says the board approved her vision for the school system and noted her “exemplary performance” when it renewed her contract, which took effect July 1. Her contract states the superintendent “shall have charge of the administration of the schools under the direction of the Board,” she said in the filing.
But there have been difficulties in Howard during Foose’s tenure, which began in July 2012 after she moved from a deputy superintendent position in Baltimore.
She came under fire for her handling of mold issues at a middle school, for her use of outside counsel for legal services and for her administration’s approach to public information requests. More than 1,000 names were collected on a petition to “Cut Foose Loose” in December 2015, ahead of her contract coming up for renewal in February 2016.
The complaint filed this week alleges that the new board has conducted much of its business in private, meeting for a total of at least 13 hours while excluding the superintendent.
“These meetings are simply unlawful, closed door meetings in which board members discuss means to strip the superintendent of her lawful authority,” it says, arguing that “The board cannot continue to meet in private and exclude the superintendent.”
It also discussed at length the board’s hiring of an outside attorney, using a sole-source contract $1 under the requirement for competitive bidding. It argues that the contract with that attorney is invalid because state law requires the superintendent’s approval.
It also says that the board has directed Foose to provide the attorney unrestricted access to student and employee records.
“No school system counsel has ever enjoyed blanket access to either student records or employee records,” it says. “No one in the school administration, not even Dr. Foose, is allowed the level of access that [the lawyer] is seeking.”
The complaint also alleges that the board has issued memos and directives to Foose that are difficult or impossible to comply with “in order to argue that she is being insubordinate and have her removed or constructively removed from office.”