The Howard County school board announced Monday its two finalists for superintendent, and whoever gets the job could make county history.
The candidates are S. Dallas Dance, chief middle schools officer in the Houston Independent School District, and Renee A. Foose, deputy superintendent of Baltimore County Public Schools. Howard officials said they believe that if chosen, the 30-year-old Dance would be the youngest superintendent in the county's history; Foose would be the first woman.
Each candidate met individually Monday with a crowd that included mostly central office staff. They then attended a question-and-answer session with the public.
Both candidates spoke of the need to narrow the achievement gap, to be fiscally responsible, to support teachers, to infuse more technology in the school system and foster an environment that is safe for students and teachers.
The school system is looking for a replacement for Sydney Cousin, who announced last year that he would be retiring, effective July 1, after eight years in the job. Howard is one of three school districts looking for a new superintendent; the others are Baltimore County and the state, which are conducting nonpublic searches.
Howard's school board has said it would appoint the superintendent before spring break, which begins this weekend. After the afternoon meeting, Howard school board chairwoman Sandra French said that the search firm has told the board to "make a decision sooner rather than later." She added that the board would meet with the firm to read the community's questionnaire responses Monday night.
"I think Baltimore County is interested in the same candidates, and that's why we're moving fast," said Howard County Education Association President Paul Lemle. Baltimore County school board officials have declined to name their candidates.
Jay Goldman, editor of School Administrator magazine, said he was surprised that neither finalist in Howard is a current superintendent.
"You would have expected at least one sitting superintendent," he said, given that the school system is large. "A lot of it is timing. … Some good people have recently moved into new positions and aren't likely to leave in a year or two."
Dance presides over middle schools in a district with more than 200,000 students, the seventh-largest in the nation with about four times the enrollment of the Howard County school system. He has been in that position since 2010.
Foose, 45, is responsible for schools' instruction, operation and performance, directing the implementation of school system policies and programs in Baltimore County, the 26th-largest school system in the country with 105,000 students. She was hired in April.
Dance said questions about his age have not come up often, but during the meet and greet he fielded a question about it from Ann De Lacy, former president of the teachers union and candidate in the school board elections.
"If you become superintendent here," De Lacy said, "you're going to oversee a staff that's been together for quite a long time, and the people are a lot older than you are. How will you manage to do that?"
"I don't think age has anything to do with it," Dance said. "I think someone's integrity, someone's character, and the way that someone believes in people is what really drives that conversation."
Helen Wheatley, chief of staff of the Houston Federation of Teachers, said union officials consider Dance accessible and easy to work with.
"When we have concerns or issues or problems that come out of the middle schools, we have been able to contact him directly and get many of those issues resolved," she said.
Foose said that she worked as a Maryland state trooper before her education career and jokingly apologized to the crowd if she had issued them any traffic tickets. Asked why she believes she is the best candidate, Foose said, "I have a broad array of experience. There isn't a job I haven't done."
She said that her first job while working her way through college was driving a school bus, and added, "I know education from driving a school bus to being a school secretary to being a classroom teacher. … My experience, my passion and my ability to move a great school system even further along than you have gotten to this point, that's my reason for wanting to be the next superintendent in Howard County."
Abby Beytin, head of the Baltimore County teachers union, said of Foose, "I have worked with her this year on many different issues. She has been easy to work with and very open with me."
Foose has worked in Maryland public schools for the past two decades. She was hired by Baltimore County after serving as associate superintendent for Montgomery County Public Schools. Foose earned a bachelor of science degree from Towson University, master's degrees in business administration and science from Loyola University Maryland, and a doctorate of education from the University of Delaware.
Dance served as executive director of school improvement for the Chesterfield County Public Schools in Virginia in 2009 and for two years before that was assistant superintendent of Louisa County public schools, also in Virginia. Dance earned a bachelor's degree in English at Virginia Union University, and a master's in education and a doctorate in educational leadership from Virginia Commonwealth University.
Baltimore Sun reporter Liz Bowie contributed to this article.