As a vocal opponent of a wastewater treatment plant vital to Glenelg High School's much-needed addition, Mary Jane Grauso said her only objective is to ensure the safety of the community's drinking water.
But her activism has caused consternation among residents who say Grauso's position as the newly elected president of the PTA Council of Howard County is awkward at best, a potential conflict of interest at worse.
"The concern that is voiced most frequently is that people are afraid that her actions as a private citizen may become confused with her actions as the president of the Howard County PTA," said Johnnie Nussbaum, a Glenelg parent and vice president of the school's PTSA, who has fielded similar concerns from other parents.
One parent, Pat Lyons, is calling for Grauso's resignation and has asked the Maryland PTA to intervene.
"Granted, she's doing it as a private citizen, but it's her position as the president of the Howard County PTA," he said. "She should be looking out for all the children of Howard County. Her actions are systematically trying to eliminate Glenelg kids from a decent education and a safe education."
Grauso, a parent of a middle school pupil, said that she has always represented herself as a citizen in the debate, and that the PTA Council would not take a position on such an issue.
"It's not a conflict of interest, OK, because I'm not representing myself as the PTA Council president," said Grauso, a longtime western Howard County resident, who assumed the position this month. "I'm representing myself as a citizen, and I've been doing that."
Esther Parker, president of the Maryland PTA, said the state chapter does not generally get involved in local issues.
"It would be a different situation if Ms. Grauso was going out there and making this a PTA issue," Parker said. "To my understanding, I haven't heard that, or there's no documentation to that effect."
In an interview last week, Grauso said she wanted to focus on "the issue of water because that's really what this is all about" rather than answering her critics.
She raised several concerns over the proposed treatment plant's operations and maintenance, including oversight and monitoring, as well as the facility's impact on the environment, particularly possible negative effects on the Triadelphia Reservoir. "The concern is the quality of water and the potential for contamination, and that's what I've been after," she said.
Grauso and other residents have hired Ellicott City attorney Allen Dyer, a frequent critic of the Board of Education, to represent them in contesting an environmental permit central to the wastewater project.
Because western Howard County does not have public sewer or water lines, the Maryland Department of the Environment must approve permits for septic or wastewater treatment facilities. In May, MDE approved a permit for the proposed treatment plant.
But 99 western Howard residents, including Grauso, signed a petition requesting another hearing on the disputed facility -- which school officials say could delay completion of the addition until August 2007.
A motions hearing on the case is scheduled for Aug. 3 before the state Office of Administrative Hearings.
"MDE is the state agency that's supposed to be making sure all the I's are dotted and T's are crossed," Grauso said. "We're saying that things are happening too quickly because we're in a growth crunch and we need to build new schools."
The latest development has frustrated parents who see the wastewater plant as the fix to the high school's crowding. Glenelg was 27 percent over capacity this past school year with 1,273 students.
"She has been working in the neighborhood and going to houses and basically giving half-truths and stirring up the pot trying to delay it," Lyons said.
Gail Reinking, a parent and president of Glenelg's PTSA, said Grauso's concerns and those of others have been sufficiently answered.
Courtney Watson, chairman of the Board of Education, said the school board has received at least a dozen e-mails and comments from people questioning Grauso's efforts. "Our response has been that it's not within our authority or control to dictate to the PTA Council whether or not they have a conflict of interest," Watson said. "We've encouraged PTA members to go through their own process and raise the question within the PTA Council."
Parker, Maryland PTA's president, characterized Grauso's situation as "no different from a politician."
"They have a personal life," she explained. "At no time could they use their title as they speak as citizens in their community."
Countywide PTA officers were trained this month and given guidelines on handling situations that toe the fine line between private and public roles, Parker said.
"It becomes a very cloudy area," she said. "We remind them, `You need to be very clear when you're speaking that folks understand that it's not the PTA position.' "
When told that some people in the community are angry at her, Grauso said, "Well, most of the people are the ones who want to push this through."