Six key moments from County Council’s grilling of MCPS officials

Montgomery County councilmember questioned MCPS leaders and school board officials at an oversight hearing Thursday, focusing on details of investigative reports and systemic issues in the district’s investigative processes. Some responses and interactions brought clarity to the situation, while some members of the public expressed dissatisfaction and council members voiced their frustrations.

After months of navigating a high-profile scandal surrounding allegations of sexual misconduct against former principal Joel Beidleman and the school system’s mishandling of employee complaints, some of the focus has shifted to progress and action.

These are just six key moments and takeaways from the hearing:

1. Past complaints sent to MCPS could be investigated retroactively.

School board President Karla Silvestre said that there “needs to be a call for people who have felt that their investigations were not properly handled,” after Councilmember Will Jawando (D-At-large) mentioned that there was likely a “population of complaints” that may not have been investigated.

Councilmember Marilyn Balcombe (D-Dist. 7) said that the school system should publicly acknowledge that the system has let people down and invite them to resubmit their complaints. She said those who submit should have the “full trust and understanding that you [MCPS] are going to do something.”

“To employees out there who have lodged complaints, who have not been answered, please resubmit those your complaints,” she said. “We need to know. Please give this system a chance to address those complaints. We are losing people—we’re losing good people—and we need to make sure that we instill this trust.”

Balcombe added that those who do not receive a response from school officials should contact the council.

2. Councilmembers were disappointed that the school board released the less redacted Jackson Lewis report only hours before hearing.

For Council President Andrew Friedson (D-Dist. 1), the “11th hour” release of the less redacted report did not give the Council “enough time to utilize it to prepare our line of questioning in a meaningful way.” He said it also begged the question of the school board and MCPS’ commitment of transparency and accountability.

The report was released just after 2 p.m. on Thursday while the hearing began at 3 p.m. The release came after many in the Council had requested it for “months,” Council Vice President Kate Stewart (D-Dist. 4) said.

“We’re glad that we have it today, but I wish it could have been done earlier,” she said.

When Councilmember Evan Glass (D-At-large) asked Silvestre why the report had been released Thursday afternoon, she responded that it was a “combination of factors” and it had been a “busy week.”

Superintendent Monifa McKnight and the board announced Feb. 2 that they had agreed to mutually part ways. The board has not publicly released the terms of McKnight’s exit. The board on Tuesday appointed the district’s newest leader Monique Felder to the interim superintendent role. Thursday was her third day on the job.

“We had to make a decision about: Should we go back to having our attorneys look back at the report that have been previously released?” Silvestre said.

“They have been helping us with a number of things this week. So, it just took time for them to be able to focus on it and be able to make a decision about whether to redact what we had already submitted or give you a format which we thought was more readable and more accessible, which is what we ended up doing,” she said.

3. Councilmember Sidney Katz (D-Dist. 3) said the school system needs enough funding from the council to apply the recommendations and make improvements to its investigative processes.

“I also believe that what we need to do is to make certain that there is no question on the resources that you need, because for us to say, ‘We’re going to fix this’ and not give you the resources is just a cruel joke,” Katz said.

“…We need to make sure that all of you have the resources in order to correct this. No one should ever feel that they’re unsafe in or uncomfortable or harassed in any of our schools,” he said.

Katz also thanked Felder for coming to the school district, which he described as a “hornet nest,” and expressed support for McKnight.

“I want to publicly say that our friend Dr. McKnight is a dedicated educator and administrator and I know is very sorry—I mean I haven’t spoken to her recently—that any of this happened as well,” Katz said.

McKnight has not publicly apologized to the community in the aftermath of the Beidleman investigation.

4. Felder’s plan to build trust with the community is to engage with and hear from staff, students, families and members of the community and get a “deep understanding of their perspective, what they’re feeling, and their recommendations on how to move forward.”

“We cannot be blanketly prescriptive,” she said. “[Community members] have a voice. They have an experience and it’s going to be extremely important to involve them and get their input on how to move forward.”

Additionally, Felder responded to a question from Jawando about how she plans to interact with the board in light of the systemic changes it would be attempting. She said that her and her team’s role would be to ensure that the board receives all the information it needs so it is aware of what is happening in the school system, give feedback and make informed decisions.

“Honestly, some of this the board shouldn’t have to ask for. We should be providing it,” Felder said.

5. Understaffing at the Department of Compliance and Investigations has been defined: there are 12 staff members for the 25,000 employees and 160,000 students, according to DCI acting director Stacey Ormsby.

Currently, the department has four experienced coordinators, four experienced investigators, three administrative secretaries and one acting director to serve the entire district, according to Ormsby. The majority are part-time employees and temporarily in the role.

“So, we only have two full-time investigators right now for the entire district? That’s very concerning,” Councilmember Kristin Mink (D-Dist. 5) said.

To “corral” the increasing number of complaints being sent to the DCI, Ormsby said the department has begun utilizing a triage process. In this process, each complaint will be recorded, analyzed for facts that are alleged, regulations and policies.

6. Considerations to bring the school board to full-time status are swirling.

Board member positions are currently part-time with a yearly stipend of $25,000.  Members have full-time jobs outside of the board. A handful of council members expressed at the hearing interest in increasing the capacity of the school board by making the position full-time.

Councilmember Gabe Albornoz (D-At-large) said that the entire construct of checks and balances in the district needs to be evaluated. “I just worry that we’re not built to be able to do that in a way that is effective enough,” he said. “And it may not be just staffing issues – which has been acknowledged – it’s more than that.”

Albornoz called for his fellow council members to advocate at the state level to make board of education positions full-time.

Glass and Balcombe also chimed in with their support for the idea. According to Glass in 2019 the school board’s compensation commission said that the board should be full-time and paid around $60,000.

“We need you to succeed,” Glass told school board members. “We need you to have the time and the staff to do your due diligence on a $3.2 billion budget, and that is not even including everything else like some of the issues we’re talking about today.”

“We need you to succeed, the taxpayers need you to succeed, and more importantly, our kids need you to succeed,” he said.

To view the full hearing online visit the County Council’s website of archived videos or YouTube channel.

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