Embattled Howard County Public School System (HCPSS) Superintendent Renee Foose tendered her resignation, which was couched as a retirement, in May, taking a $1.65 million payout. Foose’s resignation served to clear the air and end an escalating power struggle between the superintendent and the Board of Education; it was fueled by the school administration’s lack of communication with, and responsiveness to, the community, and the community’s lack of confidence in the school system’s leadership.
Howard County Executive Allan Kittleman acknowledged that he worked behind the scenes during a period of months to mediate an agreement between the superintendent and the school board.
Following Foose’s announcement, Board of Education Member and Foose ally Christine O’Connor announced her own resignation.
On May 18, the Board of Education unanimously approved the appointment of Michael Martirano, a former state superintendent of West Virginia schools who also served as supervisor of Howard County elementary schools during his career, as interim superintendent. His contract has been extended through the next full school year.
Meanwhile, Kittleman appointed Ananta Hejeebu to fill O’Connor’s vacant seat on the seven-member Board of Education.
Hejeebu serves on the Howard County Transition Commission for Youth With Disabilities and the HCPSS Budget Review Committee, which was established by the Howard County Council.
Hejeebu also serves as vice chair of the Board of Directors for Leadership Howard County and on the Executive Committee of the Howard County Chamber of Commerce’s Board of Directors.
“His personal experience with special education, understanding of the HCPSS budget and business background uniquely qualifies him to bring a fresh perspective to the Board of Education,” Kittleman said.
The council was to consider his appointment at its June 5 legislative session and its June 19 public hearing.
At a town hall held at Howard High School on May 23, Martirano asked those in attendance not to trust him, but to give him a chance to prove himself to a community he’s lived in for two decades.
“I understand that the Board of Education is who I report to, I understand that they set the policy and it is my responsibility to carry that out on behalf of the individuals [this county’s residents] elected,” he said.
Martirano said he would work with the school board “with a sense of urgency” to consider growth in the county and the need for redistricting.
“I want to take it on in a very comprehensive, thoughtfu,l deliberate way, all at once, to address the issues, be aware of developmental needs and hear from the community,” he said.
Since assuming the interim position, Martirano has shaved $40 million off the HCPSS long-term capital improvement project budget. He said the move would enable the county to build a new, modern replacement at Talbott Springs Elementary School for a difference of only $10 million above the cost of renovation, as well as deliver a LEED-certified school that would serve students for a longer period of time.
Martirano suggested that the remaining funds be used for a systemic complete renovation of Oakland Mills Middle School, support for the Applications & Research Laboratory and technology enhancements throughout the school system.
He also announced the possibility of adopting a simulated work environment model used in West Virginia schools that makes students responsible for their learning and helps prepare students not on track for college for a smoother transition to a career.
“I think Howard County is absolutely ripe for further work in terms of putting additional programs into schools, if I can get the support of our county leaders in areas where we know some of our children have greater challenges,” Martirano said. “They’re not throwaway children.”
On May 24, the Howard County Council unanimously approved Kittleman’s fiscal 2018 capital and operating budgets.
Despite modest revenue growth, Kittleman said the budget holds the line on taxes while increasing funding for targeted priority areas.
“The budget fully funds teacher salary increases and special education needs, and restores 87 para-educator positions and the new director of diversity, equity and inclusion position,” he said. “[W]e were able to work with HCPSS to advance the replacement of Talbott Springs Elementary and keep the 13th high school project on track.”
Other highlights include initiatives to provide mental health services for children; creation of the Community Resources Campus that consolidates county departments, the state Department of Social Services and many nonprofit organizations at a central, easily accessible location; creation of the Howard County Innovation Center, in Columbia Gateway Business Park; and funding to replace the aging courthouse, as well as $1.8 for flood remediation projects for Main Street in Ellicott City and Valley Mede.
In May, the County Council considered the extension of a tax credit set to expire in 2018 that incentivizes aesthetic renovations and upgrades to properties along the Route 1 Corridor. According to George Saliba, a Department of Planning and Zoning (DPZ) planner, extending the credit until June 30, 2023, would allow at least three potential property owners who previously didn’t qualify for the credit to make improvements.
DPZ Deputy Director Amy Gowan also announced plans to proceed with a study and evaluation of the entire Route 1 Corridor, focused on economic development and multi-modal transportation that was postponed while the county dealt with the Ellicott City flood. The study will commence in January 2018, Gowan said.
The council is also considering extension of a high-efficiency building tax credit until 2023.
“Green building is becoming more mainstream, and eventually the program will become obsolete, but we’re not quite there yet,” said Elissa Reineck of the county’s Office of Community Sustainability.
Since the program’s establishment, 134 homes have received credits at a cost of $550,000 to the county, Reineck said.
The council also approved a bill allowing broadband service providers to improve their networks by installing wireless facilities on streetlights, as well as a bill authorizing cottage food businesses as a permitted Home Occupation, and voted to remove the Business Rural Crossroads (BRX) designation from the county’s approved zoning districts.
Howard County’s 2018 political races have already begun to formulate, with four of five seats on the County Council set to expire due to term limits in 2018.
To date, six residents have announced their candidacy for County Council by filing applications with the State Board of Elections.
Filed Republican candidates include real estate professional Raj Kathuria for District 1, John Liao for District 2, Lisa Kim for District 3, and farmer Keith Ohlinger and real estate professional David Yungmann for District 5.
Filed candidates on the Democrat side include Deb Jung for District 4.
Although they haven’t yet filed, several other residents have announced their candidacy intentions. Among them are Democrat Opel Jones in District 2, Democrat Christiana Rigby in District 3 and Democrat Byron McFarlane in District 4.
The Business Monthly will provide more in-depth coverage of these candidates in the next issue.