Montgomery Co. school officials grilled over employee misconduct investigation as new interim superintendent pledges to adopt fixes

Montgomery County Council members hammered school officials with questions about their handling of employee misconduct allegations, complaining they got a new, less redacted version of the Jackson Lewis report detailing many of the system’s failures on the issue just an hour before the scheduled hearing on Thursday.

Montgomery County Council member Kate Stewart told school officials that the report was given to the council roughly an hour before the council session started.

“I do want to note that every single council person has requested this report for months now — and we are glad that we have it today, but wish it could have been done earlier,” she said.

Council member Evan Glass also pressed school board president Karla Silvestre on the issue, asking why it took so long to get the less-redacted copy of the report from the law firm retained by the school system that was originally released in September.

Silvestre told Glass with a pause, “We’ve had a busy week. We had your request since Monday,” she said, as Glass cut her off. “Oh, I’ve been calling for it long before,” he said.

Council President Andrew Friedson said even with fewer redactions and pledges from the school board to address the issues in the report, many questions remain. “This council, and the public, still don’t really know who, what, when or why.”

New Version of Jackson Lewis report

The Jackson Lewis report made reference to “Employee 25” and a promotion that the employee was offered.

The same report identified other employees in a similar way, with a number, and explained that five MCPS employees “that participated in Employee 25’s promotion” knew of an investigation linked to Employee 25 but “did not take any actions to ascertain the details of the investigation and did not notify the board.”

Stewart asked Silvestre, one of those five, how many — if any — were still employed by the school system. Silvestre said two were still employed but are “in the process” of being reviewed, and three were no longer with the system.

The report also found that there is no evidence that any of the other identified employees “attempted to conceal any complaints against Employee 25,” instead blaming MCPS’s practices and processes for failing to formally investigate some of the complaints.

OIG testifies before council

Thursday was the first time Inspector General Megan Limarzi addressed the county council and detailed the findings since the release of her most recent report on the failures in the school system’s process of investigating employee misconduct complaints.

Limarzi told the council members, “Since July of 2023, so this first half of the fiscal year of ’24, my office has received 92 complaints related to MCPS. That’s 40% of all complaints that we’ve received on our hotline.”

Limarzi said while the school system is taking steps to improve the collection and documentation of complaints about employee misconduct, “buying software and hiring facilitators and having focus groups and bringing in experts are all a start,” but, she said, what’s needed is “a rebuilding of this process.”

Silvestre told the county council members, “This is not a software package here, or three more staff there, this is a comprehensive overhaul.”

Sharp council questions

Council member Natali Fani-Gonzalez told school board members that the impact of the school system’s deficiencies are still felt profoundly by teachers, school staff and even young students who lack trust in the system and fear retaliation when complaints are made.

“My kids are in elementary and middle school. They know everything, OK? They know everything,” she said. “The students are talking about it. So, it’s bad.”

Silvestre told Fani-Gonzalez that the school board is working on improving the processes around investigating complaints. “We are building our capacity by adding more staff, because we need help in order to do our jobs effectively.”

Fani-Gonzalez cut her off, “I’m going to push back — you don’t have a staff issue, what you have is an attitude!”

Friedson made his frustration clear by telling the school board that the problems surrounding the school system’s handling of employee misconduct reports are “pervasive, that they’ve spanned for many years, and they reflect a culture that has appeared to focus more on protecting the school system than protecting the people who work and go to school in the school system.”

The Interim Superintendent testifies

Council member Sidney Katz addressed Interim Superintendent Monique Felder directly and offered a sympathetic note.

“Welcome. As we met the other day, I said you decided to come into a hornets’ nest, and that’s exactly what you’ve done,” he said. “This is one of the saddest moments in the history of Montgomery County Schools.”

Felder told the council members, “It is abundantly clear to me — and this is my third day — that MCPS needs stability more than anything right now. … We will implement all of the recommendations of the inspector general.”

Several council members, including Will Jawando and Marilyn Balcombe, suggested the school system should reopen any unresolved cases. Balcombe addressed anyone watching the livestreamed meeting by saying, “If you don’t get a response [by going through school channels,] please contact the council.”

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Kate Ryan

As a member of the award-winning WTOP News, Kate is focused on state and local government. Her focus has always been on how decisions made in a council chamber or state house affect your house. She's also covered breaking news, education and more.

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