Howard County school board torn by dissent

Officials seek to remove elected member Allen Dyer

July 18, 2011|By Joe Burris, The Baltimore Sun

Howard County's school board had ended its public hearing on a new elementary in Elkridge and moved onto discussing the matter — a seemingly routine meeting for the group that governs one of the nation's best school systems.

But when some area residents sought to ask more questions about the school's proposed site, they were told to wait until the meeting ended — and board member Allen Dyer wasn't satisfied. He went into the audience and sat down with the residents three times, returning to his seat with a list of questions that he addressed to the board.

That episode last week was the latest confrontation in a running battle between Dyer and other members of the board. His actions, which include lawsuits against the board, have led colleagues to take the unusual step of seeking to remove him.

As the infighting continues, public opinion appears split. Some in the county view Dyer, who was elected to the board, as a champion of the public's interests, while others wonder whether the controversy might harm the school system's image.

"Public education in Howard County is the driving force behind our quality of life," said County Executive Ken Ulman. "When I see this sort of dysfunctional nature of the current board, and when a board member is constantly suing the board and running up fees in the process, it is a concern."

At the center of the controversy is Dyer, a 64-year-old attorney from Seattle who said that he got his first taste of law and the school system in high school — when he published an unsanctioned newsletter objecting to the way his school was governed, prompting the administration to have him transferred.

A group of classmates, he said, hired a civil liberties attorney for him, and he ultimately was reinstated to his original school. Dyer said that the attorney did what he as an average citizen could not, and he sees himself as someone who must similarly speak out for citizens.

Beyond challenging the board on compliance with the state Open Meetings Act, and insisting that it should preserve all documents of board transactions, Dyer says the board is prone to "rubber stamp" policies. He has scoffed at a County Council suggestion that he cease filing lawsuits against the board, saying that he will do so only when he believes the board is complying with transparency statutes.

Dyer said the board's push to remove him is an effort to persuade county residents not to support him in the next election. His term expires in 2012.

"There is a real risk that I will be removed, and that would make the board majority very happy because they would gain a rubber-stamp appointee," said Dyer. "But the ultimate goal of the board majority is to prevent my reelection, and the impeachment is a great way for them to smear me."

In its formal request to the state board of education to remove Dyer, the board accused him of repeatedly breaching confidentiality; undermining the function of the board; using his position to threaten, bully or embarrass other board members and school staff; and spurning less divisive and less costly methods of resolving disputes in favor of litigation.

State Department of Education spokesman William Reinhard said Monday that the state board has transferred the case to the state office of administrative hearings, where an administrative law judge will hear the case.

"If either Mr. Dyer or the local board has issues with the [administrative law judge's] decision, it can be sent to the State Board for further consideration," said Reinhard. Officials at the office of administrative hearings said Monday that the hearing has yet to be scheduled.

Ulman, who would appoint an interim board member if Dyer is removed, said he supports the board's request to remove Dyer.

The county says it has spent more than $400,000 to fight cases brought by Dyer, including suits he filed before he was elected in 2008.

Board chair Janet Siddiqui said tensions on the board make it challenging to set and move forward with agenda items.

"Mr. Dyer is an elected official and I respect that, but his conduct since he's come on the board has not been a benefit for the children of Howard County and the taxpayer," she said. "He disrespects the vote of the majority of the board. And several other areas of misconduct will be forthcoming at the hearing."

As Dyer raised the questions at Thursday's board meeting, the tension among board members was apparent. Siddiqui objected, saying that his practices were disruptive to the board.

After the meeting ended, and most of the audience and school system staff had left the board room, Dyer raised the matter with Siddiqui, saying that when the board sought to remove him from its ranks "you gave up any right to compromise."

"You are still a board member," Siddiqui said, adding that Dyer "still must comply" with board protocol.

"Board governance does not say that I have to sit in my chair," said Dyer.

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