The Howard County Board of Education held a summit last night with PTA Council executive members to discuss ways to improve their relationship - three months after the council initiated an investigation into the school board's meeting practices.
"We believe that the PTA Council perceives board actions and decisions with dissatisfaction and/or suspicion," Sandra H. French, the board chairman, wrote in a letter to the council requesting the meeting to discuss "how together we might rebuild a relationship based upon collaboration and mutual trust."
French outlined several reasons for believing the PTA to be upset with the school board:
The council has asked the Howard County legislative delegation to investigate a controversial board decision.
The council has asked board members to personally account for public and private actions.
The council has requested that the board not use school system counsel.
The council has filed two complaints about the board with the state's Open Meetings Compliance Board, and more may be on the way.
In early December, representatives of the county's more than 27,000 PTA members passed five motions spurred by secretive and suspect board actions that resulted in an addendum to Superintendent John R. O'Rourke's contract that promised either renewal at the end of his current term next year or the equivalent of one year's salary - about $200,000.
The PTA and school board member Virginia Charles questioned the legality of the amendment, the closed sessions during which it was discussed and the public notification that was given.
The PTA motions asked local and state legislators to review board procedures to determine if any open-meeting violations had occurred.
"The PTA is to look after whether or not the people looking out for the education of our children are doing it in an appropriate manner," said PTA Council President Deborah Wessner during the meeting.
The night's moderator, Elizabeth Crosby, president of the Maryland PTA, stressed the importance of working together. "You will not be successful in educating children in this county unless you have parent involvement," she told board members.
Suggestions that came from the meeting include revising the board's hearing policy to allow for regular PTA input, identifying immediate and measurable goals for the school system, providing better and earlier access to board meeting agendas and reports, improving communications and increasing respect.
"We aren't always taken seriously as a conduit," said Rick Wilson, PTA Council vice president of operations.
"From a practical [stance], we're five board members. We don't have special assistants like the County Council," said board member Courtney Watson. "There's a real lack of manpower to support what you're asking."
French compared the school board's responsibilities to the Whack-a-Mole games on boardwalks: Issues keep popping up (like the moles), and it is "impossible to deal with all of those," French said.
Watson reminded the PTA that it was important to refrain from making assumptions, and board Vice Chairman Patricia Gordon wanted everyone to start from a base of trust and move on.
But Wessner took issue with unconditional faith.
"Just because you were elected doesn't make you a demi-god," Wessner said. "The public needs to be able to ask questions."
One thing both sides agreed upon was that there needs to be better cooperation between the groups.
In her two years on the board, this was the first time Gordon had ever sat down with the PTA Council to have a real discussion.
"There's been a big bump in the road," said council member James Moser. "We hit that bump, we just need to make sure we get over the hurdle."
French agreed. "We can't go back," she said. "We have to look forward and say how are we going to interact for any future issues." After the meeting, Wessner called it a start, but said they have a long way to go.
"We spent a lot of time discussing communication," Charles said. "Whether or not we follow through is another story."