More than a week after some Baltimore County Council members wrote a letter calling for change at the top of the county school system, the fate of Superintendent Darryl Williams remains a closely guarded secret among a divided school board.
The board has held two meetings — a closed-door session on Monday night that did not include Williams and its regularly scheduled meeting on Tuesday night. The board chair has said she will not discuss the situation, leaving it uncertain whether Williams will leave at the end of his four-year contract in June 2023 or sooner.
If the current 11-member board does not make a decision this summer about whether to retain Williams for four more years, it risks putting a new board that will be seated this winter in a difficult situation.
Under a Maryland law that some now say could have been better written, a new board could be without four members for months, just as it is trying to decide whether to hire a new superintendent.
“It’s looking like we may have several vacancies,” said Cindy Sexton, president of the Teachers Association of Baltimore County.
The board has been down a member since Cheryl Pasteur resigned in February to run for a Maryland House of Delegates seat. Felicia Stolusky, a former county middle school teacher, will be sworn in June 21. But she will finish out her term Dec. 2, which is also the last day of the four appointed members’ terms. The general election is Nov. 8 and the new board would take office Dec. 7.
Only two board members are certain to return. Julie Henn, the board chair, is a District candidate and running unopposed. The same is true for Rod McMillion, the board’s vice chair, who is seeking the District 7 seat.
The four appointed members have not asked to be reappointed, which could potentially leave the board with seven members or fewer by the end of the year.
Sexton, who is on the county school board’s nominating commission, said the appointed members are not legally required to stay on the board when their terms are finished. And outgoing Gov. Larry Hogan, who leaves office in January, cannot appoint new members, Sexton said. The appointment of new board members will fall to the new governor, who won’t be sworn in until January.
The board needs seven votes to pass an agenda item. And the student board member in Baltimore County has only a limited vote. They cannot vote on topics like budgets and collective bargaining.
Del. Eric Ebersole, a Democrat representing parts of Baltimore and Howard counties, said he would hope the new governor will appoint the members “posthaste,” but a scenario where all of the appointed members leave can happen.
“My hope is people have some integrity, realize the situation is tricky, and make the best decision they can,” he said.
Donald Mohler, a former Baltimore County executive, said the law that allowed board members to be elected had brought “unintended consequences.”
“It was certainly never the legislature’s intent to put the school system on hold while waiting for appointments,” he said. “The education of our children is too important.”
He said the law needs to be fixed so that such a situation doesn’t happen again.
“We will try to fix it,” said state Del. Cathi Forbes, a Baltimore County Democrat. They tried to fix it in the past, she said, with a bill that would have required the appointment of board members to occur during non-election years. However, the bill didn’t pass.
Sen. Charles Sydnor, a Democrat representing Baltimore County, said legislation does not always work as intended. But legislators try to make modifications when needed. Since the board became a mix of both appointed and elected, it has not functioned well, he contended.
He said he’s started having conversations about reverting the board back to a fully appointed one. Sydnor noted that the board was more diverse, reflective of the community and effective before members were elected.
“And I don’t remember us having these issues when it was a fully appointed board,” Sydnor said.
Williams’ fate has been the subject of intense speculation since five county council members, including all three Republican members, wrote a letter expressing frustration with him and urging the school board to begin a search for a new leader. On Monday, school board members met in a closed-door session to discuss a personnel matter. But details of that meeting were not disclosed.
Henn wrote on her official Facebook page on Tuesday night, “Legally, we aren’t permitted to discuss confidential personnel matters. So please don’t ask. It’s hard to have to say ‘no.’” She went on to say that she wished the public could “see the work we do behind closed doors. It is some of our best work and despite what some would want the public to believe, we do it well.” She said that while board members sometimes disagree, they are trying to do the right thing.
It is unclear whether those who support a search for a new leader have the seven votes to move forward.
The board also has the option of buying out the final year of Williams’ contract and voting to install an interim superintendent.
A former Montgomery County administrator, Williams has led the system during a tumultuous time that includes the COVID-19 pandemic and a devastating ransomware attack that shut down schools for days and continued to disrupt normal functions for more than a year. Williams also has had to contend with a fractious board known for its public and private infighting.
Tuesday’s school board meeting was the first time the board had met publicly since the county council’s meeting. As a large crowd gathered, the start of the public portion was delayed by an executive session that ran about 90 minutes.
Although board members and Williams said nothing about the potential superintendent search, several speakers did.
Jeannette Young, president of the Educational Support Professionals of Baltimore County, thanked Williams.
“You are the first superintendent to show genuine interest in the working condition of anyone other than the classroom teacher,” she said.
Brian Epps, president of the local AFSCME chapter that represents bus drivers and bus attendants, told the board he supported Williams as well. “This is the first time that AFSCME and other support unions have been brought to the table to share problem-solving collaboration with the superintendent,” he said. “We are in the midst of a national bus driver shortage across the country. We cannot blame Dr. Williams for that.”
Sexton said TABCO doesn’t have a position on Williams’ support. But they will continue to work with the school system on a contract.
Local lawmakers also spoke at the meeting. Sydnor asked what kind of candidates the board thinks it will attract after putting pressure on Williams, who is being blamed for issues all Maryland school systems are dealing with. And he described the board and county council as a “toxic environment.” Before the meeting, Sydnor said he hasn’t seen any reason for the system to fire Williams.
“I’m an attorney, so present me with the facts of why the superintendent should be fired,” he said outside the building. “And tell me what superintendent candidate would ever want to deal with a board like this.”
Del. Sheila Ruth, a Baltimore County Democrat, told the board that Williams has done an “admirable job” despite the challenges posed by the pandemic. She said before the meeting that it isn’t responsible for the board to decide on firing a superintendent “when most of them are going to be gone.”