ROCKVILLE, Md. - All 11 members of the Montgomery County Council appeared in person Thursday, taking turns pressing Montgomery County Public Schools leaders on what officials say is the failed investigation into a public school principal promoted despite having numerous sexual harassment and bullying allegations lodged against him.
"Obviously, there was a huge failure here," said Education and Culture Committee Chair Will Jawando. He and several other council members repeatedly encouraged the Montgomery County School Board President and members in attendance to at least release a redacted report that still adheres to state privacy guidelines — if they truly want to rebuild trust and show transparency.
School Board President Karla Silvestre revealed the reason the school board decided on a summary and not the full report of a private law firm’s investigatory findings is because the Maryland Public Information Act prohibits them from sharing confidential personnel information.
This law is meant to promote transparency, not prevent it, Councilmember Andrew Friedson expressed in his remarks.
Montgomery County council member took turns pressing Montgomery County Public Schools leaders on what officials say is the failed investigation into a public school principal promoted despite having numerous sexual harassment and bullying allegations
The school board hired the law firm Jackson Lewis to investigate after several damming allegations against MCPS employee Joel Beidleman in a report featured in The Washington Post in August. The report scrutinized how Beidleman was able to be promoted from Farquhar Middle School to Paint Branch High School’s principal after at least 18 allegations of sexual harassment and bullying had been lodged against him since 2016.
Members of the community raised concerns over the hiring of the law firm. They questioned the report’s independence when the same law firm was previously hired to represent the school district. Part of the Thursday committee hearing included council members expressing concern that interviews given to the firm for this investigation could potentially be used against them should there be a lawsuit or some kind of court battle in the future. Councilmember Kristin Mink called it a shame that participants were not properly informed of how their interviews could be used.
MCPS leaders maintained they had no idea of the allegations and heeded questions on how there is no mechanism to inform school board members of any current or prior investigations for those either promoted or transferred.
It was also revealed that MCPS’ system deletes emails one year after the electronic message is sent. However, Superintendent Dr. Monifa McKnight stopped short of confirming that as the reason why a concerning email on Beidleman previously sent to the school board and superintendent could not be located.
"It’s disturbing. It’s disturbing. Teaching is a challenging job as it is – much less when you feel as though your system is not listening to you and supporting you," said Carolyn Parker, a Paint Branch High School parent and former PTSA member. "I think the public should really question about who they’re electing to the board and to the county council. It took, I think we’re up to seven articles at this point in The Washington Post and various news sources to really get this to the forefront and keep this story going."
MCPS Superintendent Dr. Monifa McKnight responds to questions from Montgomery County council members.
Superintendent McKnight spoke about how she is accepting accountability for what is in her purview and spoke about what policy changes she is working on to address the many issues surrounding the Beidleman investigation.
"What I can say to you is that it is my job as superintendent to make sure I will have the improved practices and procedures completed within MCPS that bring about the trust of this entire committee, and that’s what I’m committed to doing," she said.
"[There] seems to be a longstanding culture problem," said Councilmember Andrew Friedson.
Council members encouraged Dr. McKnight to not wait for the Inspector General’s reports to make changes.
Councilmember Marilyn Balcombe expressed concern that those employees complacent in the allegation investigations should not be involved in overhauling the system.
It was also revealed in the hearing that Farquhar Middle School had the second-lowest score for staff leadership on last year’s climate survey, which to council members was a clear red flag. Councilmember Friedson expressed that it doesn’t matter how many surveys are done, it’s what’s done with them that matters after Dr. McKnight said she wanted to move toward two surveys a year.
Silvestre also revealed that school board officers went to the superintendent over the serious allegations, and that’s when the decision was made to hire Jackson Lewis. It does not appear that was done by a school board vote, and would be part of the school board exercising its oversight responsibilities.
Councilmembers also recognized the challenges school board leaders face regarding staffing. It was highlighted how the school board role is not a full-time position, with members like the board president having to miss work to participate in the committee hearing.
Councilmember Sidney Katz spoke about how the council does not have oversight in this matter. They are partners with the school board.
Balcombe voiced frustrations over how the council is not "privy to the facts" but still called on to fund the school system blindly.