A potential $30 million federal grant to Howard County Public Schools may be dead before the application is even submitted to Washington.
The issue has pitted new Superintendent Renee Foose squarely against Paul Lemle, the president of the Howard County Education Association.
Foose said Lemle has a "political motive" to promote candidates the organization supports before the upcoming election, while Lemle claims the school’s central office didn’t involve the teacher’s union in the grant writing process and that this Race to the Top grant will continue to tie teachers’ evaluations with standardized test scores.
The grant, if awarded, would provide the county’s schools with $20 million to $30 million to help teachers use technology to create individualized instruction models for struggling students, according to Linda Wise, deputy superintendent of curriculum. The deadline to submit the grant is Friday at 4:30 p.m.
The grant requires signatures from the superintendent, the chair of the board of education and the president of the teachers’ union. On Wednesday, the board voted 5-2 to sign the application, with board members Brian Meshkin and Cindy Vaillancourt voting against it.
However, Lemle said on Thursday the HCEA didn’t have enough time to review the grant application and therefore he wouldn’t sign it.
“We didn’t even see a copy of the grant in its entirety until Sunday morning of this hurricane weekend,” said Lemle.
At the board meeting Wednesday night, Lemle said there wouldn’t be enough time for his organization to review and vote on the application. HCEA’s bylaws require three-day notice for its board of directors and representative council to vote on issues. In this case, three-day notice is impossible, because the grant application is due on Friday, a fact Lemle admitted he did not know until Wednesday evening, due to deadline changes from the hurricane. The original submission deadline was Oct. 30.
The time crunch is the result of a 10-week-period to write the grant. Foose said central office staff worked feverishly to complete the complicated proposal before the deadline and didn’t finish until this weekend. The grant has been kept secret from the public because it’s competitive and other districts may use the county’s language if it were to release the application publicly before the grants are submitted, school officials said.
“We wanted to make sure we got it right,” said Foose. “Whenever you write a federal grant, time’s always a problem, that’s just how the federal government does business. The issue here is there is a larger political agenda. [Lemle] sent out an email last night to his constituents talking about the grant and then basically in that same email lobbying for three people he believes should be on the school board. It’s more of a political motive than a practical motive.”
In response, Lemle said, “It is a political question and it is a policy question, it matters both what politicians vote and what bureaucrats do in implementation.” He said it didn't bother him that Foose said the issue is political.
Lemle said despite HCEA having veto power, the organization was not included in the grant writing process.
Lemle’s concerns with the grant are that it will use standardized test scores to evaluate employee performance and that it may impact HCEA’s collective bargaining agreement with the school system.
He said the grant is a Race to the Top Grant and that signing on would require the school system to follow the U.S. Department of Education’s model of using testing to evaluate teachers.
“The school system failed on the front end to include us until dropping the grant on us and saying collaborate,” said Lemle.
However, Foose said she invited Lemle to join the grant writing process on Oct. 17.
“They were as involved as they chose to be,” said Foose. “I personally invited him, if you want to come in and sit down with a pencil and start writing with these folks, then please do.”
Lemle confirmed at the meeting on Wednesday that Foose spoke with him about the grant on Oct. 17.
“We’ve had more conversations with Paul Lemle in the past six weeks than probably in the last six months,” said Foose.
She added that this grant has nothing to do with the current teacher evaluation model and is separate from earlier Race to the Top grants.
“It has nothing to do with the teacher effectiveness model,” said Foose. “This is an opportunity to leverage the teacher effectiveness model with the original Race to the Top Grant in such a way that it is more teacher-friendly and de-emphasizes any standardized testing whatsoever.”
She said the county schools that scored the lowest on the latest Maryland state assessment would be the schools that would receive the grant money to give teachers the tools to offset standardized testing.
The two board members who voted against signing the grant application, Meshkin and Vaillancourt, said they did so because there was no memorandum of agreement between the superintendent and HCEA that they would work out their concerns.
“We didn’t give the teachers’ union something to approve,” said Meshkin on Thursday. “I think that was a fatal mistake.”
HCEA’s board of directors met on Oct. 26 and voted against signing the grant application because they didn’t have a final copy, according to Lemle.
At the meeting on Wednesday, Vaillancourt said, “I do not want to hear the union blamed for this when we already know what their schedules are like.”
Meshkin attempted to put forth an amendment that would have allowed HCEA to deal with their concerns after the grant was submitted, but the board voted it down.
On Thursday, Foose said she spoke with Lemle about a memorandum of understanding similar to what Baltimore County Schools had done on their application, but they were unable to come to an agreement.
Lemle said there was no possibility of him signing onto the application on Thursday afternoon.
The application has the support of County Executive Ken Ulman as well as County Council Chairperson Mary Kay Sigaty. Sigaty said the grant would directly affect a number of schools in her district in Columbia as well as schools in Savage and Laurel.
“We know that there are challenges for those populations,” said Sigaty at the meeting on Wednsday.
“I applaud your embrace of individualized instruction efforts and a greater use of technology to close the achievement gap that unfortunately persists in Howard County schools,” wrote Ulman in a letter of support to Superintendent Foose.
Foose said the application would be submitted without the union’s support.
“Baltimore County signed on to it after they put a memo of understanding on it,” said Foose, “Prince George’s county signed onto it. Why can’t we sign on to it?”
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