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Saturday  •  February 3, 2020

Developer Influences on HCPSS Redistricting and the Howard County School Overcrowding Crisis

By Steven Keller

Let’s talk about the topic that few politicians want to touch and most county residents want to know more about: Developer influence in HCPSS school redistricting.


The following email from the President of the Columbia Regional Office for The Howard Hughes Corporation to the Columbia Downtown Housing Corp (CDHC) is direct evidence uncovered of behind-the-scenes developer influence on the 2019 HCPSS redistricting process. The email confirms that there was great pressure on Superintendent Martirano to propose and support a FARM student/socio-economic status based redistricting plan by both select County Council members (specifically, Christiana Mercer-Rigby, Opel Jones and Deb Jung) as well as by select developers and their media, lobbyist & marketing partners.



This email, sent on July 17, 2019, urged HCPSS to redistrict based on socio-economic terms and cited a community member’s blog research as its supporting material. The message was relayed by a third party to Kevin Gilbert, Director of Diversity, Equity & Inclusion and Superintendent Martirano to provide “an additional reference” for them, likely to provide “cover” for the socio-economic based redistricting plan that Superintendent Martirano was working on.


Following this letter, an intense marketing campaign was initiated by Center Maryland, an online news & social media company with direct lobbyist ties to The Howard Hughes Corp., to coincide with the press release for county council CR-112 resolution on August 13, 2019 that called on HCPSS to “desegregate its schools” and the reveal of Superintendent Martirano’s controversial socio-economic based redistricting plan just one week later. Center Maryland was co-founded and is led by executives of KO Public Affairs, which was described in a Baltimore Sun Op Ed as the “vampire squid of Maryland politics” .


From July 2019 through November 2019, Center Maryland sponsored an aggressive social media marketing campaign with over 32 posts & ads related to HCPSS redistricting, all strongly supporting the Superintendent’s proposed redistricting plan in the name of “equity” as detailed here and here.


Center Maryland also sponsored an Equity Conference in September 2019, in partnership with the Maryland Building Industry Association(MBIA), that heavily featured supportive discussion about Superintendent Martirano’s socio-economic based school redistricting plan and even featured one of the HCPSS Board of Education (BOE) members, Sabina Taj, who was the strongest proponent of redistricting students to rebalance the FARM student percentage among HCPSS schools. The community member whose blog posts were so heavily cited in defense of CR-112 and Superintendent Martirano’s plan also presented at this Equity Conference. BOE documents reveal that this community member was invited to meet with the Superintendent in an 8/16/2019 Boundary Review Follow-up meeting.


Of note, evidence that showed that ticket purchases for this Sept 2019 Equity Conference were linked to the MBIA website (proving their partnership in coordinating the event) was taken down by Center Maryland.  However, this evidence was fortunately saved as a recording in this Facebook post.


Additional proof of partnership and explanation of connections between Center Maryland, MBIA, and select Democratic politicians, including HCPSS Board of Education members can be found here.


The Howard Hughes Corporation’s strong marketing campaign and behind-the-scenes pressure on the Board of Education to implement Superintendent Martirano’s socio-economic based redistricting plan is very interesting, particularly considering that it has a $5 billion development deal in Central ColumbiaThe area around this development deal includes polygons that were featured in Superintendent Martirano’s plan as clear examples of socio-economic status driven redistricting (versus redistricting to alleviate overcrowding/over-capacity).


Another interesting recent find is the attached July 29, 2019 email from Michael Harris, special assistant to County Councilman Opel Jones, to other County staff members. According to Mr. Harris, a 2019 summer intern had been assigned a special project to research the effects of redistricting on property values in select areas in the county for an upcoming meeting with Superintendent Martirano.


Very interesting to see this summer project was conducted by an intern reporting to CR-112 co-author Councilman Opel Jones’ assistant when many proponents of Superintendent Martirano’s redistricting plan heavily criticized any critics of the Superintendent’s plan who cited the impact on home values across the county as a metric to consider.


The mounting evidence of developers championing the idea of socio-economic based school redistricting in the name of “equity” supports the concept of “Bootleggers and Baptists”.


Before wrapping up this post, let’s go a little further back in time to explore a few more examples of possible underlying developer influences on County officials and bills that significantly impact the overcrowding in HCPSS schools….


1) In Spring 2019, HCPSS Board of Education Chair Mavis Ellis testified against a county bill that would increase waiting periods for new home construction due to overcrowding, which was a significant and alarming departure from prior BOE positions on the need to control housing growth. Other BOE members subsequently indicated they did not agree with Ellis’ testimony.  The many flaws of the “Urban Analytics study” that Ms. Ellis cites in her testimony are discussed in this Facebook post.


2) Jumping ahead to Fall 2019, in the midst of the controversial school redistricting process, a Housing Task Force was appointed on Oct 30 by County Executive Calvin Ball to lead Howard County’s Master Plan, calling for 5,000 new rental units due to a “massive shortage of affordable housing.” BOE Chair Mavis Ellis is a member of the Task Force.


3) Local developers have repeatedly testified against school surcharge legislation (CB-42), citing concerns about affordable housing. Details of developer entrenchment on affordable housing coalitions are discussed here.


On a related note, if you missed the series of Maryland Public Information Act (MPIA) response releases that provide a glimpse behind the curtain regarding the planning and rollout of the Howard County Council’s CR-112 resolution in August 2019 that called on the Howard County public school system to ‘desegregate’ its schools, you can find them here:


While the above is a considerable amount of obvious and concerning evidence, this is certainly just the tip of the iceberg regarding developer influence on the 2019 HCPSS school redistricting process and on the decisions made over the past few decades that has led to the over-capacity crisis that HCPSS now faces.  If you have further information, please submit a tip to the HoCo Watchdogs Secure Reporting Platform.

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