Jun. 10—The Frederick County Board of Education, during a meeting filled with emotional testimony Wednesday, voted to put Frederick Classical Charter School on probation, aiming to curb what community members described as a hostile and dysfunctional governance system.
Despite the school's high academic performance, parents and administrators said issues with its governing body, the Board of Trustees, were hindering its basic functions. More than a dozen community members attended Wednesday's work session, most speaking in favor of the probation and punctuating the meeting with murmurs of agreement.
"Thank you for putting us on probation," former Board of Trustees President Sue Middleton said during the public comment period. "It's exactly what this board needed to hear."
The problems at the school came to light last year. In November, then-Board of Education president Brad Young sent a letter to FCCS' Board of Trustees outlining his concerns. Community members had complained about a host of issues with the trustees, including racist remarks, a lack of transparency and immature behavior at meetings.
Together, the letter said, the problems "created a climate of fear and retribution" across the school. Young also cited a high staff turnover rate, with 41 percent of FCCS staff — 13 employees out of 32 — leaving during the 2020 school year. Only two of those were retirements.
The Board of Trustees' response to Young's letter was "borderline hostile," school board member Karen Yoho said Wednesday. Communication between the trustees and the county has been strained and largely unproductive, board members said.
FCCS, which offers a classical, liberal arts-focused education, will remain on probation for one year. It will have to submit quarterly progress reports to the county during that time. The county hopes the move will spur change at the school, making further action — like revoking FCCS' charter — unnecessary.
"It would be a real, real shame if the Board of Trustees can't get it together," said Board of Education member Liz Barrett. "It's just a ... ridiculous exercise that grown-ups can't get it together for kids."
Frederick Classical Charter School Board of Trustees President Nkechi Ileka-Adeoye did not immediately respond to an email request for comment Wednesday night.
After Wednesday's initial work session, during which community members spoke against the Board of Trustees, several others took to the microphone with a different perspective. They argued the trustees were passionate, effective volunteers, and said the blame for any dysfunction at the school laid with principal Camille Bell and the Board of Education.
Jaime Brennan was one such commenter. Until about 30 minutes before she spoke, she said, she was the school's acting treasurer and a member of the board of trustees. Now, she's resigned and pulled her daughter from the school.
In her comments, Brennan railed against the school board and Bell, whom she accused of abandoning the classical model of education and turning FCCS into "a shell of its former self." She claimed Daniel Lippy, FCPS' school management director and the leader of its probe into FCCS, was working with "half truths." She called the Board of Education "incompetent."
"Last time I was here, Ms. Barrett made a point of talking about equity," Brennan said. "Well, now you have it. Our kids will be getting the exact same crap public education as every other FCPS student. Good luck to them. They'll need it."
Barrett, meanwhile, said she'd received a slew of emails from parents insisting that their children were happy at FCCS. Several commenters echoed that, saying the dysfunction in the school's leadership hadn't trickled down to the students' day-to-day experiences.
One parent began to cry as she told the board about her niece, who is autistic, has ADHD and has thrived under Bell's leadership. Another agreed, saying the staff and students were "like a family."
The school's board of trustees, though, was another matter. A commenter said its communication with the community "is sparse at best," adding she was shocked by the hostility she witnessed at its meetings.
"I've sat in on a few and have been literally shaking for two hours afterwards, just not understanding how adults could be so uncivil," she said.
Several parents also brought up concerns about the Board of Trustees' spending on lawyers to review its bylaws and aid in property searches. According to Young's letter, the trustees rely "heavily on a litigious approach to conducting business through the use of nondisclosure agreements and threats of litigation instead of working in a transparent collaborative fashion that builds institutional and public trust."
Board of Education members stressed that putting FCCS on probation didn't mean they wanted to see the school close. Instead, Yoho said, the move was an opportunity for the trustees at the school to "step back, put your egos on the shelf, take a deep breath" and listen.
After the parade of commenters and intense discussion, Bell thanked the Board of Education for its support. Despite her frustration with trustees, she expressed hope that the probation would be a turning point for her school.
"Sometimes you feel like you're in a monsoon," Bell told the News-Post Wednesday night. "The rain is stopping. The sun is coming out. And at the end of the day, the flowers will come."
Follow Jillian Atelsek on Twitter: @jillian_atelsek