This article was originally published in the Baltimore Sun on October 17th, 2015.
Two weeks after sharing few details with the Howard County Council about turning over the Harriet Tubman School, School System Superintendent Renee Foose signed an agreement with County Executive Allan Kittleman to transfer the historic building to the county.
Kittleman and Foose briefly discussed and signed the memorandum of understanding at a press conference in front of the Tubman School on Friday afternoon.
The terms of the agreement “allow the school system to transition out of the building … over the next 14 months,” according to a press release from the county executive’s office. The agreement had not been made public as of Friday.
The school system’s construction and building services departments use the Tubman School building for office and storage space but, according to the press release, the county has agreed to find new space for these operations. Kittleman said that the county would provide the funds for the necessary relocation site.
The county executive called Bessie Bordenave, an alumni of the Tubman School and president of the Tubman Foundation, to tell her about the agreement, she said at the press conference.
“I was so happy,” she said. “It made my day.”
Bordenave referenced the struggle that led to the agreement by quoting one of her favorite songs.
“Time and time again, we never thought we’d win,” she said. “We never thought we’d be in this place. This is a good place to be in.”
For more than a decade, members of the Harriet Tubman Foundation and the county’s legislative delegation to the state have urged the school system to turn over the building to the county so that it could be used as a cultural center. The Harriet Tubman School was an all-black high school that closed in 1965 after the desegregation of Howard County schools.
“This is something we’ve been working towards for many, many years,” Kittleman said. “It’s been our goal and our desire to save this building and to make sure it’s here for future generations to use, but also to continue the culture and continue the understanding of what happened here.”
Kittleman emphasized that the agreement is only the beginning of the process of turning over the Tubman building.
“This is not over. This is not the end,” said Kittleman. “This is the beginning of a process.”
At a meeting with the County Council on Oct. 7, Foose said, “It’s too soon to tell,” in response to a question from Councilwoman Jen Terassa about the school system’s timeline for vacating the Tubman School facility. But at Friday’s press conference, the superintendent said she was happy “to be doing this today,” and expressed her “wholehearted support for this agreement.
“The county and the school system are jointly committed to transferring the building to the county as soon as possible, so that the process of converting it can begin,” Foose said. She outlined a relocation process that will happen in two phases to allow for school system operations to continue “seamlessly.”
“For the first phase, the county has committed to providing the school system with a temporary site where these operations will relocate while a more permanent site is prepared,” she said.
After the press conference, Kittleman said that his office had not yet determined how it will fund the relocation sites necessary to transfer the Tubman School building from the school system to the county. He said that more work remains to be done at the state and county levels to complete the process.
“I just hope it does what it says it does,” said state Del. Frank Turner, who has been an advocate for turning over the Tubman School building. He said that he had not seen the agreement and was not familiar with its details, but that it was a step in the right direction.
“After 23 years, we’re finally moving in the right direction,” he said. “Hopefully we’ll continue in the right direction.”
While supportive of any effort to begin the transfer of the Tubman School, Board of Education member Cynthia Vaillancourt expressed frustration that the school board was not included in the approval of the MOU. She said that she was not informed about the press conference until the night before the event, and that she had not seen a copy of the agreement before Foose and Kittleman signed it.
“I, as a duly elected Board of Education member, [was] invited to a public press conference to learn what the Board is going to do with a historic building, which I find to be questionable and unacceptable,” Vaillancourt said. “It is unacceptable for a member of the Board of Education to be invited as a spectator to this kind of announcement.”
At the announcement on Friday, Ellen Giles and Bess Altwerger said that they had not seen the MOU either. Copies were sent to all board members before the the press conference, according to HCPSS Communications Specialist Brian Bassett, but that did not happen until two minutes before the event’s start time, Vaillancourt said.
Board Chairwoman Janet Siddiqui had the option to sign the MOU, Bassett said, but had not done so before the press conference, which she was unable to attend.
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