Howard principal locked in legal fight

Head of struggling school pursues defamation suit

October 05, 2003|By Tricia Bishop | Tricia Bishop,SUN STAFF

The principal of Howard High School, which was recently added to a list of the county's struggling schools, is embroiled in a legal dispute stemming from criticism of her leadership and professional competence.

Principal Mary J. Day says in court papers that she has endured "a long-term campaign of malicious, wrongful and/or illegal acts: including breach of contract, negligence, defamation, intentional infliction of emotional distress, and civil conspiracy" from county and state education representatives and their unions.

She is appealing the dismissal of a defamation lawsuit brought in Howard County Circuit Court against some of her critics.

The lawsuit - against the Howard County Education Association and its president, Joseph R. Staub Jr., and the Maryland State Teachers Association and its county liaison, Marius Ambrose - focuses on their actions in 2001.

Among the actions Day said were improper were a "thinly veiled, malice-inspired" meeting Staub held with schools Superintendent John R. O'Rourke to discuss her performance; two letters to the editor Staub wrote and had published in The Sun and the Columbia Flier complaining about her hiring of a basketball coach; and breach of contract.

But Staub, a former Howard High teacher, said teachers had complained about Day's leadership and had accused her of using "fear and intimidation." He also said Day had not supported him on student discipline issues and that he sought a transfer after a year at the school.

"Personally, I would have liked [the lawsuit] to have gone to court and been argued on its merits," Staub said Friday. He and Ambrose say they were trying to resolve conflict.

In an opinion signed July 24, Judge Dennis M. Sweeney stated that Day had not used the administrative remedies available to her - such as appealing to the county and state boards of education - before going to court, as the law requires in public school matters.

"The statutory remedy in this case is not only exclusive," Sweeney wrote, "but must first be exhausted before judicial review is granted."

When asked about the lawsuit, Day told The Sun that the matter is personal and that she would not comment.

Her Baltimore-based attorney, William Buie III, would say only that the appeal, which he filed with the Circuit Court and Court of Special Appeals on Aug. 25, is pending. "No scheduling order has been issued yet, and briefs haven't been filed or anything."

The suit seeks $1 million in compensatory damages and $500,000 in punitive damages, plus attorney fees.

Teachers' concerns

In 2001, Day was a member of the county education association, which represented teachers and principals until administrators formed an association that year. Ambrose said he and Staub were obligated to represent teachers in matters concerning Day because she was acting improperly as a supervisor.

In May 2001, Staub asked union staff at Howard High to express their views, through paper ballot, about confidence in Day because, he said, teachers had expressed doubts about her abilities. The survey showed that 36 Howard High staff members did not have confidence in Day and 30 did. Twenty-nine members did not respond.

Attached to the poll was a memo, which Ambrose said was developed by teachers at the school and which Day's suit states was "self-serving, misleading and totally improper." The memo outlined teachers' concerns, including allegations that Day "uses fear and intimidation for respect," is prone to "negative tirades" and is "not visible during the school day and is frequently late for school."

Supporters

Melody Higgins, whose daughter is a junior at Howard High, said the Mary Day she knows is hardworking and deeply involved in providing quality education.

"Mrs. Day goes out of her way to try to make sure that she knows the kids - she knows my daughter - and that they do well," Higgins said. "I find her to be a very caring, concerned individual who's responsive to the educational needs of not only my child, but other children in the school."

In another interview Thursday, Day said that her focus has always been on the individual child and that she hopes the resources Howard will receive after being named a struggling school will further that mission.

Howard High had not made the progress education officials had hoped it would last year, so they made the school part of the School Improvement Unit last month and put measures in place to improve student performance.

"It's going to help our kids do what it is we want them to do," Day said Thursday.

Staub and Ambrose, however, said Day was - and is - neglecting her leadership duties.

"The situation was very bad over there and still is as far as I'm concerned," Ambrose said Friday.

Staub was a teacher at Howard High in 1995, when Day became its principal. He said he asked to be transferred at the end of the school year.

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