Publisher Kenneth Brown

The Politics of the Board of Education

I was fortunate enough to attend Baltimore County’s inaugural ceremonies to observe some of our elected officials sworn into office. Among these  officials were members of the Board of Education. That was unique for two reasons: The school board now includes members elected by you, the citizens of Baltimore County, and school board members were, for the first time in history, sworn in on the big stage. Originally, they were to be sworn in before the start of their first meeting on Dec. 4 in the Greenwood building. I’m glad they got their due.

Now, it’s time to get down to business. Like a blended family, the board will go through growing pains getting to know each other, understand complex issues and make decisions that matter. It is most essential that the school board sets politics aside and works with each other, the superintendent and their communities to improve school achievement. One of the most important tasks ahead is to appoint the right superintendent to continue the important work that needs to be done. 

Before each meeting, the board holds a closed session to discuss confidential matters, such as personnel and legal issues. It was apparent that before the first meeting on Dec. 11, the board took the opportunity to discuss and select who would be the chair and vice chair. And guess who they are? Kathleen Causey and Julie Henn, two holdovers who were first appointed by Governor Hogan then re-elected in November. 

The vote to select Causey and Henn as chair and vice chair was not unanimous behind closed doors. But when board members took the official vote in the public session, they projected a unanimous and united front. So much for transparency! This move was about looking unified to the public, and I encourage our leaders to make sure the community is clear on where they stand with the issues and their comments and votes.

These two, as we say, have history. They were among a handful who were adamant that the previous board should conduct a national search for a superintendent (they lost that motion); that Verletta White should not be the permanent superintendent (both voted against her selection, twice); and that the state was within its power to overturn the school board’s 8-4 decision to name White the superintendent. 

After Causey took her seat as chair, with Henn beside her, the optics were unsettling. To their credit, each appear to be well prepared at meetings and have asked staff and presenters good questions. However, now we have two of the most vocal and critical people against the White administration leading the new board. 

In her remarks, Causey welcomed the new board members and pledged to keep students and teachers first. She wasted no time appointing Henn to chair the board’s ad hoc search committee for a superintendent.

So why did Causey name Henn chair of the ad hoc search committee? It’s like a prosecutor taking over the role of judge in the same case. If this is to be a fair board with a fresh start, someone who has not taken a stand in the superintendent battle would have been a sensible choice to lead the ad hoc search committee. With so many new members, it should not have been difficult. 

We have to understand what it means to us. The board is going to determine decisions and programs that will affect our leadership, parents, schools and our students. We have to stay on top of their debates, decisions and actions. 

Education is the most important investment society makes to a community. It’s the surest path to the American dream for people of every race and background. Successful graduates contribute to society. Unsuccessful students carry a cost to society. 

If you look at the state’s new star ratings for schools, most of Baltimore County’s high schools, middle and elementary schools earned three and four stars. Five schools in the northwest and southwest received just two stars. These are our schools and our children. Think about how we can work with the Northwest Education Advisory Council, chaired by Clifford Collins, and Southwest Education Advisory Council to be informed and help our schools. We know that school board members should represent all children, and realistically and practically that each comes with their own priorities and their own biases. They are no different than most of us. 

But if we allow politics to consume our board—as it did when the state withheld funding from the county for air conditioning when the Governor and our former county executive, Kevin Kamenetz, got into a war of words, and when state stepped in to block the school board choice as superintendent— we will pay the price. Even before that, when former superintendent Dallas Dance began making decisions that parents did not like about the Hereford Zone, the attacks began.

If education is as important to you as you say it is, I urge you to put in the time to pledge your support, voice your concerns and offer solutions. If you don’t care about your community why should anyone else? There may be times when you must respectfully call out a troubling issue. At their meetings, the board will randomly select up to 10 people to speak for three minutes on an issue. If you sign up to speak before the board, your remarks should be factual, succinct and well researched. You should have a request or call to action for the board. (Don’t just complain, offer a reasonable recommendation.)   

If you’re not able to attend the meeting or would prefer not to appear before the board, contact them. Now too long ago, communicating directly with board members was difficult. You can now email board members. Ask to meet with your representatives, and remember there are four at-large members. 

At the Northwest Voice political forum in October, each of the board members present pledged to solicit and consider the opinions of the community members, parents, teachers and other stakeholders. I encourage them to hold to that commitment. 

To Lisa Mack, Cheryl Pasteur and Makeda Scott, we are counting on you to work together and to be proactive, thorough, thoughtful, innovative and fair in your decisions for our students, parents, teachers, staff and superintendent. Why not hold a town hall to present updates to the community and get their feedback and opinions? And because Districts 1, 2 and 4 are neighboring, I encourage each of you to schedule the town halls so that your colleagues from those districts can be present. 

We need your leadership! Our students and community depend on it.