Following the installation of three new members at its regular meeting in December, the Howard County Board of Education wasted no time in taking action on campaign issues.

With a vote of 5-2, the board voted for an immediate change, under which the board has sole authority for directing and terminating board staff, including the board administrator, secretarial staff and the internal auditor. Under the same change, board staff will report directly to the board.

Board members Sandra French and Christine O’Connor opposed the changes.

“I haven’t seen or heard of this at all prior to this [meeting],” French said. “I can’t vote yes. Even though it might be worth considering, the process is not one I support.”

The new board rebuffed Howard County Schools Superintendent Renee Foose’s request that the board first get a legal opinion on the legality of the change.

“We’re confident that we have the authority to take this action,” newly elected Board Chair Cynthia Vaillancourt said.

Based on other community concerns raised during the campaign, another motion was passed with a similar vote of 5-2, giving the board the sole authority to engage, direct, communicate with or contract for legal services for or on behalf of the Howard County Public School System or the Board of Education.

“Any previously delegated authority to any employee, staff member or agent is rescinded,” said Board Member Beth Altwerger, although the board chair does have the authority to appoint a designee with full board concurrence.

Other changes enacted by the board included the addition of representatives from the community on existing groups and future groups formed to review, revise or develop special education policy or programs. The board authorized the internal auditor to begin a review of current and existing sole source contracts, and also to begin a review of Transportation Department operations.

The board also reconstituted the HCPSS Operating Budget Review Committee, which was disbanded in 2014.

Council Action

At the Howard County Council’s December legislative session, Councilman Jon Weinstein (D-Dist. 1) was selected to serve as the new council chair for a term ending in December 2017.

New legislation under consideration includes a temporary waiving of certain food service and construction-related fees, as well as charges for properties damaged in the July 30, 2016, flood in Ellicott City.

The council tabled a resolution introduced by Councilmembers Calvin Ball (D-Dist. 2) and Jen Terrasa (D-Dist. 3) calling on the Maryland State Department of Education to contract for a performance audit of the HCPSS.

According to Terrasa, the new board of education has announced a commitment to taking “immediate and decisive action” to address some of the issues that have triggered concern in the community.

“I think it makes sense to move forward collaboratively, and that may or may not require a resolution,” Terrasa said.

The council approved the transfer of $1.7 million between capital projects in the board of education’s capital budget for 2017.

With a vote of 4-1, the council approved a resolution calling on the county’s Human Rights Commission to study the recruitment, hiring, retention and promotion practices of Howard County Government and the Howard County Sheriff’s Department.

Councilman Greg Fox (R-Dist. 5) took issue with the amendment process and, in his view, the resolution’s automatic assumption of discriminatory practices within Howard County government.

“It’s disappointing it took this much effort to even get [the resolution] improved this much, and it’s unfortunate it couldn’t have gone another step further,” said Fox, who would have preferred tabling the resolution to allow another public hearing.

Sheriff Case Appealed

John McMahon, the Republican candidate defeated by Democrat Jim Fitzgerald in the county’s 2014 sheriff’s race, has escalated his court case over irregularities in that election to the Maryland Court of Special Appeals.

Fitzgerald resigned in November 2016 following allegations of racial discrimination and creating a hostile work environment that were detailed in a Howard County Office of Human Rights report.

Gov. Larry Hogan subsequently appointed former Howard County Police Chief Bill McMahon (no relation) to be the new sheriff, in accordance with Maryland’s constitutional provisions.

John McMahon, however, contends that the 2014 election was never officially decided, alleging that Fitzgerald did not take the oath of office as required by the Maryland Constitution. The Constitution characterizes the office as being declined if the oath is not administered within 30 days.

“What I’d like to know is, which of our other government officials, elected or otherwise, knew about his refusal to take the oath of office?” John McMahon said. “When did they know this, and if they knew it, why didn’t they say anything?”