The Montgomery County Council whiffed this week on a chance to pressure the school board into a truly independent investigation of the sexual harassment allegations made against longtime principal Joel Beidleman, several councilmembers told MoCo360.
Five councilmembers reported feeling blindsided and rushed by a letter circulated Monday by Councilmember Dawn Luedtke (D-Dist. 7) calling for a higher-level investigation into the allegations against Beidleman and the school district’s handling of them. Ultimately, the only signers were Luedtke and Council President Evan Glass (D-At-large), who consulted on the draft.
The council’s Education and Culture Committee on Thursday sent its own letter to the school board and superintendent demanding immediate clarification on the Beidleman investigation and reporting processes.
A Washington Post investigation recently revealed that at least 18 reports of sexual harassment, bullying and retaliation had been made by MCPS educators against Beidleman over the course of seven years, including six 2023 complaints.
Despite the complaints, Beidleman was slated for a promotion to serve as principal of Burtonsville’s Paint Branch High School next school year before queries from The Post prompted his being placed on administrative leave. He has repeatedly denied the allegations against him. MoCo360 has made unsuccessful attempts to contact him for comment.
While councilmembers unilaterally say they share a desire to see the Beidleman investigation handled fairly and impartially, they described Luedtke’s letter as a “missed opportunity” and feel they should have been allowed more time to consult and ask for context before being asked to sign it.
“This is a very complicated situation, and I just didn’t feel like I had enough background information to sign a letter this important and serious,” Councilmember Marilyn Balcombe (D-Dist. 2) said. “If we had had a heads up, then OK. But that’s not what this was.”
The school district’s decision to tap law firm Jackson Lewis for an independent investigation has been met with much public scrutiny. Not only does the firm have a history of defending large corporate employers like MCPS, but it has direct financial ties to the county government—including making campaign contributions to current councilmembers and receiving over $110,000 in funds from MCPS.
Luedtke and Glass sent the letter to the County Inspector General Megan Limarzi and State Inspector General for Education Richard Henry to request their offices jointly take over the Beidleman investigation. Limarzi did not immediately respond to requests for comment on Thursday.
The letter is also copied to Superintendent Monifa McKnight and Board of Education President Karla Silvestre (At-large) requesting they promptly halt the Jackson Lewis investigation and turn the firm’s work product over to both inspectors general. Silvestre did not immediately respond to requests for comment on the letter Thursday.
Luedtke sent the letter to her colleagues after 2 p.m. Monday asking them to review and sign it by 5 p.m. before it would be sent, several councilmembers confirm. Only Glass, who Luedtke said she consulted with in drafting the letter, signed it before it was sent.
Councilmembers Kristin Mink (D-Dist. 5), Andrew Friedson (D-Dist. 1), Kate Stewart (D-Dist. 4), Laurie-Anne Sayles (D-At-large) and Balcombe described the letter as coming “out of the blue” and said they felt “rushed” to decide whether to add their names without being able to gather information and discuss with each other.
Responding to comments from her colleagues, Luedtke said she “didn’t feel obligated” to consult with the Education and Culture Committee or other councilmembers in drafting the letter, describing the council as “autonomous beings afforded the ability to make decisions for ourselves.”
“I think something that’s lost somewhere in all of this is that I could have just sent [the letter] myself,” she said. “I didn’t need to share it with anybody else. It was something that I was going to do, period. Not signing it didn’t mean [other councilmembers] didn’t care about the issue.”
Mink is one of the council’s three Education and Culture Committee members and confirmed to MoCo360 that Luedtke did not consult with her committee in creating the letter.
In an email Wednesday, Mink wrote that she supports the swift involvement of the inspectors general “as soon as reasonably possible.” Halting the Jackson Lewis investigation immediately to make way for higher-ups to take over raised questions about efficacy and cost, according to Mink.
“I’m not necessarily opposed,” she wrote, “but [I] asked [Luedtke and Glass] about the cost/benefit analysis of that change in timeline and whether they had knowledge of the structure of the agreement with Jackson Lewis. I did not receive an answer before the letter went to print.”
In a Thursday interview, Luedtke denied receiving Mink’s request for a cost/benefit analysis.
“I have not been asked to do that, so I can’t comment on that,” she said.
Responding to Luedtke’s comment, Mink said her chief of staff asked Luedtke’s chief of staff for the information on her behalf, and she reiterated that “we did not get a response to that by the time the letter was published.”
The first stage of Jackson Lewis’ probe focuses on any potential MCPS culpability connected with Beidleman’s Paint Branch promotion. It could be complete as early as Sept. 8, Silvestre said Tuesday.
Balcombe said she felt it would have been “a kneejerk reaction” for her to sign the letter within the timeline given. Friedson said he thinks “it wouldn’t have been very difficult” to have taken more time to get the entire council on board, which he said would have resulted in “a stronger letter that achieves the same objective.” Sayles described the letter as a “missed opportunity to send out a unified response” from the council.
“While I agree with the general direction and call for an independent investigation, I did not sign onto the letter because I felt I needed to do my own due diligence and understand not just the intent but the potential impact and, in this case, the jurisdictional issues,” Stewart said.
Less than 24 hours after Luedtke and Glass’ letter was sent, the Board of Education wrote to the County Council doubling down on its commitment to move forward with the Jackson Lewis investigation. Silvestre wrote that Jackson Lewis would “give progress updates and issue reports” directly and exclusively to the board over their two-phase investigation.
Just before 8 a.m. Thursday, the council’s Education and Culture Committee sent its own letter to the school board requesting more information about the investigation and MCPS reporting processes.
Committee members Mink, Will Jawando (D-At-large) and Gabe Albornoz (D-At-large) have each reached out to Limarzi independently to request her involvement in the Beidleman allegation, according to the letter.
In their letter, the E&C Committee asks for “immediate” answers to three questions:
- Beginning the first day of school, how can MCPS staff, students and families report inappropriate conduct and be assured of independent oversight?
- What immediate follow-up is being done with other schools who scored poorly for leadership on the 2022-23 Staff Climate Survey?
- How and when will the findings of the Jackson Lewis investigation, including the expected Sept. 8 report, be made public?
Mink told MoCo360 she hopes the council and public will have answers before school starts Monday. The school board met Thursday afternoon for its last regularly scheduled business meeting before the new school year launches. The status of the Beidleman investigation did not appear as a scheduled topic on the agenda.
The Education & Culture Committee plans to hold an oversight meeting on the matter in September, according to its letter Thursday.