Thank you

I thank all of you from the bottom of my heart. You heard my message and you spread that message. I look forward to working with you and for you.

There is a lot of work to do to restore the trust, much less the relationship, between all of the stakeholders of our school system. I ask for your help and input.

Thank you for working on my behalf.

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Election Eve

The reasons I decided to run for Howard County Board of Education still exist. If you have a few minutes and enjoy accounting, take a look at this recent audit report. Len Lazarick makes a strong case for voting out the lone incumbent left in the race. If you’ve finished reading those, I’d like to add a couple of additional notes:

  • There were complaints about the length of time for the audit. Evidently, the Administration decided that a Board member had to attend every audit meeting. Think Mark Zuckerberg or Richard Branson hanging out with an auditor every couple of weeks. That doesn’t happen, my friends.
  • Ms. O’Connor’s letter did not go to the rest of the Board as that “cc” would seem to indicate. When a Board member finds out from the press asking for comments, dysfunction as a body is rampant.
  • I started my career as an auditor…In the ensuing years after I left public accounting, I continued to work with auditors as I was the client. I wanted clean opinions and minimal recommendations. Have I gotten annoyed while on either side? Of course.

This report and its scorched earth response “from” the current Chair of the Board are a tightly wrapped gift to the state as reasons to punish our school system.

Then fast forward to Thursday’s Board meeting where Board members voted to end discussion on the payroll errors. Which were NOT a minor issue. Thank heavens for Dr. Altwerger for pushing it back onto the agenda during her report. Of course, more ridiculous behavior ensued after that. One departing Board member wanted the Internal Auditor to answer questions on it, which is not his field. (She was later heard to be telling people “I didn’t say the things they say I did.” But…video…)

Whatever happens, I believe we’ve shown the endemic nature of this cancer. I have worked very hard over the past 19 or so months on this campaign to learn and understand the responsibilities of this office. But I know that my campaign is nothing compared to the hard job awaiting me.

I am super excited to meet people as they vote tomorrow. Thank you for all of your support and encouragement…and TIME.

State Audit Report

As an accountant and former auditor, today’s report was a riveting read.

Given the past couple of years, the MD state legislative audit of HCPSS presented a consistent story that noted sole-sourced contracts and mishandled mileage stipends. We’ve known about some of these items and inflated health care costs and similar issues drove Dr. Ball and the Council to have their auditor do another audit.

Finding 5 was somewhat surprising – “HCPSS lacked evidence that the salaries for 142 administrative employees, which totaled $15.3 million in fiscal year 2014, had been approved by the Board as required by State Law.” Worse was the claims by HCPSS “that the salaries and pay scale were provided to certain Board members“ (emphasis mine). Our Central Office administrators and managers make a lot of money. Side note: Did you know that some managers have been demoted, but kept at their manager salaries? Their title in the payroll system stays the same, so they can’t seek refuge with Howard County Education Association. Crafty, right?

Add another piece of perplexing and disappointing evidence: the Board Chair (or her proxy) wrote a very defensive and confrontational response to the State Legislative Auditor that was sent WITHOUT notifying the entire Board of Education. This meant Board members were blindsided the other day as the report was being circulated in advance of its official release today (Oct. 21).

What does this mean? Well, the Board is completely dysfunctional. The leadership of the school system is going into bunker mode and attempting to defend itself against the indefensible. I attended the PTA Presidents meeting with the Board earlier this week. They constantly blamed the county for budget cuts because getting $32 million more than the prior year is apparently a budget cut. Dr. Altwerger, thankfully, mentioned looking for areas to cut that do NOT affect the classroom. But the Board majority wants parents to mobilize against the County Executive and Council because they’re the bogeymen that “cut” the Budget. They’re hitting the kids where it hurts so parents will lobby on behalf of the Board, when there is no shared pain on the part of HCPSS Administration.

Is it world-class to act this way? To fight our elected officials, both the HCPSS Board and our county/state legislators? Is it world-class to expose student information to potential hacking? How is this meeting the goal of “Families and the community are engaged and supported as partners in education?”

In Maryland, we have NINE days to vote. Take advantage of your right to vote. Tell people who might not be paying attention to what is happening to the highly decorated Howard County school system. (Also tell them that HCPSS and thus, we taxpayers, pay for some of those decorations.) The Board vote matters for our property values and taxes and our reputation, but it primarily matters for our students and parents and educators. Rebuilding trust may take awhile, but let’s start the process on Election Day.

Forums Around Town

We’re a month out from Election Day! We have a few more forums coming up around Howard County. Scott Ewart has a helpful list here. If you’re unable to make it to a forum in person, check out http://www.vote411.org/ for Candidate information.

Each forum has its own personality. It’s always exciting to do a new one. Rarely do we get the questions beforehand.

One where we did is the Columbia Village Board forum coordinated by Oakland Mills. We submitted our responses and you can view them here. Next week, we have the chance to expand on one of the questions.

Thank you to all who coordinate these forums. They are a lot of work, but they provide an opportunity for us. Countywide candidacies present challenges, but thanks to civic groups, we get a chance to spread our message to multiple constituencies.

Perception & Reality – Budget Edition

Last week, during the inaugural meeting of the Howard County School System Budget Review Committee, the group decided that they did not know everything about the HCPSS Budget and would like to reach out for some help. So they issued this relatively anodyne letter requesting a tutorial on how HCPSS develops its budget. The chair of the committee, Joshua Kaufman, was a former Chair of the Board of Education, but things have changed dramatically since he served. More disturbing was the Superintendent’s appointee to the Committee, a current Board member until early December, agreeing that she needed & welcomed the guidance. You’ve voted in favor of this budget & this process for a couple of years and you’re now familiarizing yourself with it???

Anyway, the letter seemed fine and it did include the tacit approval of the two sitting Board members that have been appointed to the Committee (unethically in many citizens’ view).

Fast forward to Tuesday…Sept. 6. Dr. Calvin Ball had enough of the lack of responsiveness and is looking into legal action against the system to compel the school system to hand over documents.

Which leads me to the rumors…Shredding. Another set of books. Staff being asked to do things they don’t feel comfortable doing.

These are RUMORS. Yes, I have been told by a few people, different backgrounds, etc. But they are unsubstantiated.

However, that’s where WE ARE NOW. We are so used to double dealing and mistreatment of staff and parents, that this is completely believable. This administration has blown up the lines of communication and has alienated an entire community.

One member of the new committee asked that whoever comes to provide this briefing not be someone who is claiming HCPSS won’t be able to keep the lights on. One of the Board members said that phrase was never said. But we’ve got the videotape (Courtesy: Barb Krupiarz).

Monthly Reminder…

That I’m not running in 2018 for another office if the Howard County electorate decides to select me for the Board of Education.

Remember this? It’s still true!

Yes, as a member of the Town Center Village Board, I have been very engaged in the Downtown Columbia discussions. (Tonight, our Board will testify AGAINST the increase in density and the Administration’s plan.) The 2010 plan had 5,500 units and the idea that 900 additional units won’t be counted toward density because they’re affordable sets a dangerous precedent for the county. It’s like not counting Pre-K toward elementary school capacity…

But I continue to hear from people that I am running for the County Council District 4 seat, which will become vacant in 2018. That Board of Education is just a stepping stone that I’m using. That being a political animal I really won’t be satisfied with the Board.

One day maybe I will run for County Council. But when people tell you I am running in 2018, ask yourself why they’re telling you that rumor/lie. And please tell them, stop saying it.

Testimony FOR Budget Review Committee

Last night, I joined several members of the community in support of Dr. Ball’s bill CR 88 that creates a School Budget Review Committee under the aegis of the Council, rather than the Board of Education.

My testimony:

Good evening. My name is Kirsten Coombs. I am a member of the Town Center Village Board and my testimony is my personal opinion. I am a Certified Public Accountant, although not practicing currently. I have 20 years of experience in the accounting field & I have an MBA.

When the Citizens’ Operating Budget Review Committee was suspended in 2014, HCEA asked whether there was interest in convening an unofficial committee. I was glad to join and began working on the analysis of this $800 million budget.

That process taught me that the Superintendent and the Board of Education majority are unwilling to answer simple questions about the taxpayer money they receive. A budget demonstrates priorities for the coming year. The 2016 budget and now the 2017 one indicate that the Superintendent prioritizes higher class sizes, fewer instructional assistants, fewer textbooks, unproven trendy sounding programs and eliminating special education services. The Budget director of HCPSS referred to saving taxpayer money on special education, which Ms. Terrasa called offensive. Despite a forecasted increase in children with special needs, the Superintendent did not add any staff to school based services to address this increase.

An appropriate budget process should address the coming year as it is, as well as system priorities. Given that we are discussing taxpayer money, the budget process should also be transparent to the citizens. Unfortunately, the budget process has not even been transparent to some sitting Board of Education members. The Superintendent has dismissed Board members’ questions about it.

Please support this legislation to begin the process of restoring trust in our school system. Thank you.