A challenge to replace the three incumbents up for reelection to the Howard County Board of Education this year succeeded in November, with the lone primary election survivor, Janet Siddiqui, defeated in the general election.
New board members Mavis Ellis, Christina Delmont-Small and Kirsten Coombs will be sworn in this month, starting their term in the deep end facing an electorate that has been very vocal about perceived trust issues with the board.
Taking up the public’s concern about transparency, Howard County Council Chair Calvin Ball (D-Dist. 2) and Councilmember Jen Terrasa (D-Dist. 3) have filed legislation calling for the Maryland State Department of Education to contract for a performance audit of the Howard County Public School System (HCPSS).
Specifically, they want a study of legal fees and the use of outside legal counsel, the school’s procurement process and special education staffing and services.
“We have an extraordinary school system, but these ongoing issues are very problematic,” said Ball. “The county auditor’s financial audit limits us on addressing ongoing issues with the school system.”
Board of Education Chair Christine O’Connor’s argument that periodic mandated state legislative audits of the school system were sufficient seemingly fell flat in October when one such audit called into question the school’s reliance on sole source contracts without sufficient justification. The audit was also critical of the school system’s network security, internal controls and financial accountability.
O’Connor’s pre-election response to the audit disputed the relevance of many of the findings, and also questioned the experience and understanding of the state auditor. This was followed by a post-election apology to the Office of Legislative Audits for the terse tone in her original letter.
Inappropriate behavior was also a major topic during Howard County Executive Allan Kittleman (R)’s final town hall of the year, held at the North Laurel Community Center in December.
Responding to the concerns of parents upset over racially-charged social media postings by two students and to belligerent behaviors by adults that emerged in the wake of the presidential election, Kittleman expressed “anger and frustration.”
“I have asked [Office of Human Rights Administrator] Barbara Sands to put together a community forum to address these issues as well,” he said. “It’s not something that we’re going to tolerate in Howard County.”
Kittleman said he would consider an ongoing series of these forums.
Howard County NAACP President David Steele echoed Kittleman’s concern about the school system incidents.
“I hate to get to that point where we’re starting to look at these situations from a purely civil rights perspective; we’re playing a different game now,” he said. “It doesn’t originate [in school], it originates in the community. We need to respond as a community [and] ask communities of color, non-color, lesbians, gays, tall, fat, whatever, we need to have a discussion about this because this is our problem, not the school’s problem.”
Downtown Columbia revitalization received a boost in November with the council’s approval of $90 million in funding for public infrastructure improvements in the Merriweather District. As the community developer, the Howard Hughes Corp. (HHC) will invest $2.2 billion in the redevelopment district created by the legislation.
The council also approved legislation calling for 900 units of affordable housing within the 391 acres earmarked for redevelopment.
Tax Increment Financing (TIF) includes $90 million in Phase I for a public garage that provides a permanent parking solution for Merriweather Post Pavilion, roads and other public improvements.
Incremental property taxes from the new development also will be set aside for major public projects supporting downtown Columbia, including a public elementary school, a fire station, arts center, transit center, central library and transportation improvements.
Terrasa, however, informed the council and public that she would not be signing the Memorandum of Understanding with HHC and would not vote for the TIF legislation.
“[The MOU] doesn’t address some of the bigger concerns we’ve heard about the TIF, giving one developer an unfair advantage or leaving the county vulnerable on a number of fronts,” she said. “I don’t have an objection to things that can’t go into legislation going into an MOU.”
The council rejected Terassa’s own legislation package and amendments in favor of TIF legislation by a margin of 4-1, with Terrasa casting the sole vote in opposition.
Among other requirements, Ball said, the MOU secures a commitment for Howard Hughes to plant 10,000 trees and pay an additional $12 million into an infrastructure fund. “There is a local hiring program goal of 10%, an apprenticeship and workforce development program, and there will be more focus on LEED development,” he said.
According to Councilmember Mary Kay Sigaty (D-Dist. 4), Howard Hughes has agreed to review covenants with members of the community to identify areas requiring modernization.
As to the developer’s agreement to transfer the Transit Center property to the county, “It’s important because we’re thinking about using that structure as a focal point for trying to do some innovative transit-oriented development,” Sigaty said.
In November, the HCPSS requested transfer of $1.7 million between projects to cover site entry improvements, parking lot expansion and a 3.8% increase in renovation costs at Waverly Elementary School.
According to Renee Camain, manager of the Office of School Planning, the funds will come from projects entering the final phase at Atholton High School, Ducketts Lane Elementary School, Longfellow Elementary School, New Elementary School 42 and Wilde Lake Middle School. “There will still be money left over [for these projects] should anything else arise,” she said.
The council is also considering a resolution that calls on the county’s Human Rights Commission to study the recruitment, hiring, retention and promotion practices of certain Howard County government offices, the Sheriff’s Office and the HCPSS.
Additionally, the administration has asked the council to consider lowering the qualification age for a senior property tax credit from 70 to 65 to align with legislative changes enacted at the state level several years ago.
“My estimate is about $100,000 in additional cost to provide this credit,” said Assistant Director of Finance Linda Watts. “The reason that figure is so low is that there are still a good number of people between 65 and 70 still working, or whose income level would not qualify them. For those who need it, it would now be available.”