In the short time since Harford County middle school science teacher Jacob Bennett won a seat on the seven-member county council by 94 votes in a close November election, he has been excluded from the inauguration program and official swearing-in ceremonies, locked out of his office and email account, denied the council salary and supplies afforded other council members, and called “unqualified.”
Bennett’s trials came at the direction of the new county executive, Bob Cassilly, who very aggressively sought Bennett’s removal from the council on the grounds that he couldn’t be a school employee and a member of the council. On February 15, Cassilly succeeded in having Bennett barred from working as a council member when a Harford County Circuit Court judgement disqualified him from service based on his employment by the Board of Education.
Bennett fought back hard, and on April 5, the Maryland Supreme Court overturned the judgement. In its brief but direct order, the Supreme Court “ordered that neither Section 207 of the Harford County Charter, nor the doctrine of incompatible positions, precludes Mr. Bennett from serving as a member of the Harford County Council while simultaneously being employed as a teacher by the Harford County Board of Education.”
Now that we’ve cleared the path at the state level and removed any ambiguity, it’s time educators reclaim power in our own communities. I promise you, you could run for office and win.— Jacob Bennett, Harford County Council member.
“This declaration by the Court,” says MSEA General Counsel Kristy Anderson, “also has the effect of solidifying the decisions of counties throughout the state that currently have educators serving on county councils without challenge.”
In the wake of extremist lawmakers in Tennessee silencing the voices of dissenting legislators, Maryland’s courts have rejected similarly underhanded attempts among our elected officials to subvert our democracy.
MSEA and its legal team, and the Harford County Education Association, stood by Bennett throughout the ordeal. “When Jacob’s standing as a councilman was officially challenged, we connected him with those at MSEA who helped find the best representation possible. HCEA was present for his court hearings and provided moral support on a regular basis,” said HCEA President Chrystie Crawford-Smick. “When Jacob was snubbed and not invited to the county-wide inauguration, HCEA leaders showed up to his private swearing in to support him.”
Why do you think the county executive has been so adversarial towards you since your election? What is he afraid of?
In their arguments, the county made it very clear that their biggest fear is me being there for the budgetary process to stand up for school funding. Their view is educators should play nice and sit quietly while the “real” politicians determine how much money it takes to take care of children. Much of their argument rested on the idea that my being on the council may cause more educators to run for county council as well, who would also advocate for our schools and children. Their nightmare is my dream.
What does it mean for you to finally be able to attend and participate in the council meetings?
Returning to the council feels like breathing fresh air again. It is so nice to be able to be back in my community doing the work they elected me to do. It is also relieving to know the courts recognize the independent nature of boards of education when it comes to employment.
How has this informed your purpose and ambition in community service?
People have poured so much time and energy into ensuring I get to return to my seat, and I feel it is my duty to do something with it. I’ve learned just in my six weeks out of my seat how precious each moment in office is. We have hit the ground running since coming back by preparing for the budget, meeting with the community, and writing legislation. I want to support educators from across the state to run for local office. Now that
we’ve cleared the path at the state level and removed any ambiguity, it’s time educators reclaim power in our own communities. I promise you, you could run for office and win.
In what ways has the support of your local union and MSEA kept you uplifted and positive?
I love being a teacher and I am proud to be a union member. It’s been my union brothers and sisters who I’ve leaned on most these past four months. So many dear friends and fellow members helped my team with research for our case, sent supportive messages, called Abbie and me to check on us, and wrote to the county executive to share their feelings on what was happening. It goes to show us educators know a thing or two about solidarity.