National Search Likely To Replace Worcester Superintendent; Wilson To Serve On Interim Basis

Dr. Jerry Wilson

NEWARK — After almost 40 years in education and four years in Worcester County, Superintendent of Schools Dr. Jerry Wilson says he’s ready to do something else.

Prior to the Worcester County Board of Education budget meeting on Tuesday morning, Wilson announced that he will not seek re-appointment at the end of his four year term, which expires June 30.

“My family and I have evaluated our plans for the next four years and beyond,” said Wilson. “I’m not able to commit to serving as the superintendent for the next four years as required by Maryland law.”

Wilson, who was hired in 2012, replacing former superintendent Dr. Jon Andes, says his future is not completely certain, but hints that he’s leaning more toward retirement than a career change.

“When I looked at all the things that I want to do in life, I looked at those four years and realized that it was beyond the commitment that I was willing to make,” said Wilson. “We have grandchildren in Colorado who touch my heart deeply and my daughter is in Wisconsin, so our family is spread out across the country.”

Wilson has been a superintendent for 22 years in Colorado, Idaho, Oregon, Wyoming, England and here in Maryland.  He also spent 13 years as a teacher and three as a principal.

His decision wasn’t a surprise to the Board of Education, but it was notable that new Board of Education President Johnathan Cook took a massive deep breath before reading his prepared public “thank you” to Wilson for his efforts over the past four years.

“During his tenure, Dr. Wilson has positioned our schools with a strategic direction for the future,” said Cook. “With his digital initiative, Worcester County public schools will continue to foster innovative education and leadership.”

Fellow board member Bob Rothermel echoed Cook’s praise for Wilson’s work, noting that the superintendent came into town at a difficult time in the education world: a curriculum change.

“I have nothing but the utmost respect for this man, his credentials and his integrity,” said Rothermel. “He came in with a high achieving school system, and he kept it as a high achieving school system.”

Rothermel pointed out Wilson’s efforts in helping the county through the transition to the controversial Common Core curriculum.

“Children should be taught how to think and not what to think and I think that’s emblematic of what Dr. Wilson tried to do here,” he said.  “Those were tough times, but we’ve seen that our students have risen to those new standards.”

Cook explained the board’s unanimous decision to keep Wilson on for another year via a contract extension to levy enough time for the board to find a suitable replacement.

He will finish this school year as superintendent and will serve the entirety of the 2017 school year until his contract expires on June 30th, 2017.

“I think the board will go through a very deliberative process to select the next four-year superintendent,” said Wilson, “and I think selecting a superintendent is one of the most important things that a board does.”

Wilson says he’s looking forward to the next year and a half of work in order to, as he puts it, “continue the work on all of the initiatives.  There’s much to be done, and our work never stops.”

Carrie Sterrs, Worcester County Public Schools Coordinator of Public Relations and Special Programs, called Wilson’s announcement bittersweet.

“On a personal level, I’m very happy for Dr. Wilson.  He’s had a wonderful career and I know he is very far from his grandchildren and his kids”, said Sterrs, “but on a professional level, I’m very sad. I’ve really enjoyed working with Dr. Wilson and I’ve learned so much from him.”

Wilson currently makes a little more than $172,000 in his current position, but it is unknown at this time whether his salary will be altered for his one-year contract extension.

Cook says the board of education will be putting together a search committee for Wilson’s eventual replacement in the coming weeks.

“As a University of Maryland alum, this job has given me the opportunity to come full circle in my career”, said Wilson, “I’m grateful to have been provided the opportunity to lead the highest performing school system in the state of Maryland, and it was an honor to work with the student of Worcester County these past four years.”

Legislative Digest: Governor Stresses Bi-Partisan Importance; Officials Talk Bomb Threat Bill

Legislative

ANNAPOLIS – In this week’s legislative digest, Governor Larry Hogan presents his 2nd state of the state address to the Maryland General Assembly, Delegate Mary Beth Carozza is joined by local supporters and educators for her false bomb threat bill hearing, and legislation is introduced that would grant paid sick leave to more than a half million Marylanders.

 

State Of The State

Governor Larry Hogan took a much different tone during his second state of the state address on Wednesday than he did during his first speech last year, calling for bi-partisanship and collaboration in the effort to continue to move Maryland forward.

“In the days ahead, I will extend my hand to you in cooperation and in devotion to our duty,” said Hogan, “and I ask each of you, and all Marylanders, to seek that middle ground where we can all stand together. Because together, we are stronger, together, we can continue on this brave new path, and together, we can and we will change Maryland for the better.”

Hogan was upbeat and positive after spending much of 2015 battling non-Hodgkins lymphoma. He announced in November that he is cancer free.  He noted that the experience has changed his perspective in some ways. Unchanged, however, is his focus and dedication to fiscal issues and tax relief.

“Our first and most important task was to correct our state’s fiscal course, and to get our economy back on track,” said Hogan. “For the first time in nine years, working together we adopted a budget that did not include a single tax hike. Not only did we not raise taxes, together we cut them.”

Last year, Hogan’s harsh tone drew the ire of many Democrats in the General Assembly, prompting Senate President Thomas V. Michael Miller to accuse the governor of delivering an “angry speech” filled with rhetoric that “would have been better suited on the campaign trail.”

Hogan likely had that criticism in mind as he prepared this speech this time around, which included a bit of bi-partisan high praise directed at Miller and House Speaker Michael E. Busch. Yet, Hogan spent the vast majority of his speech touting the state’s job and revenue growth, the relief given to taxpayers, and challenging legislators on both sides of the aisle to push for more.

“Let’s build on that progress and continue to make Maryland a more competitive and a more business-friendly state,” he said. “Let’s begin by reducing taxes and making it easier for the smallest of Maryland businesses who have been struggling the most.”

Hogan’s approval rating is also at an all-time high, as a recent Gonzales poll shows that 67% of Marylanders approve of the job that he is doing as governor. That approval rating is higher than the two previous governors (Martin O’Malley and Bob Ehrlich) achieved at any point during their respective tenures.

 

Testimony Heard On Bomb Threat Bill

On Tuesday, Delegate Mary Beth Carozza was joined by a number of local educators, law enforcement officials and concerned parents and students in front of the House Judiciary Committee as that legislative body considered House 121, officially titled Criminal Law-False Statements Concerning Destructive Device or Toxic Material-Venue.

Coming on the heels of numerous, yet unfounded bomb threats on local schools in Worcester and Wicomico counties, the bill would allow law enforcement to prosecute the person or persons responsible for making the false threats in the county where the threats were directed, rather than where the threat originated from.

“This bill will make it so the community most impacted by the threat can prosecute the threat, regardless of where the threats originates,” said former Delegate and current Worcester County Deputy Sheriff Mike McDermott during his testimony.

Beau Oglesby and Matt Maciarello, the State’s Attorneys from Worcester and Wicomico counties, respectively, were in attendance at the hearing as well.

During his testimony, Oglesby noted a 2011 bomb threat made against Showell Elementary School that could not be prosecuted because the call had originated in the neighboring county of Wicomico. Oglesby was adamant the bill would enable his office to prosecute threats like that in the future.

Carozza urged the committee to take action quickly noting the “sense of urgency to move this bill given the recent disruptions that these bomb threats have been causing throughout Maryland.”

The Senate version of this bill, SB 287, which is co-sponsored by Democratic Senator Jim Mathias, will be heard before the Senate Judicial Proceedings Committee on Feb.11.

 

Paid Sick Leave Bill Reintroduced

Senate Majority Leader Catherine Pugh (D-Baltimore City) and current candidate for mayor of Baltimore, will re-introduce her paid sick leave bill that didn’t make it out of committee last session.  Pugh, who is also trying to pass legislation that would see supermarkets put in communities deemed to be “food deserts”, says that it is unfair that anyone should have to choose between “work and sickness.”

According to an advocacy group called Working Matters, which is campaigning for compensated sick days, more than 700,000 Marylanders do not receive any paid time off when they get sick.

Pugh’s bill would all full time workers to earn an hour of paid time off for every 30 hours they work, earning up to 7 days of paid time off.

Some business groups and employers have been in vehement opposition of the paid sick leave proposal, calling it an onerous mandate made by government on small businesses.

Delegate Luke Clippinger, (D-Baltimore) will sponsor the corresponding version of the bill in the House.

According to a 2016 poll done by Gonzales Research and Marketing Strategies, 73% of Marylanders like the idea of paid sick leave, but only 12% support the move if the sick leave results in a reduction in benefits.

 

Q&A With Michelle Freeman, ‘What Grief Can Do Is Keep You From Moving Forward’

Michelle Freeman

SELBYVILLE — It’s hard to pinpoint what is more remarkable about Michelle D. Freeman, President and CEO of the Carl Freeman Companies, The Joshua Freeman Foundation, and the Freeman Stage at Bayside.

Is it her underdog-like story of achieving so much despite enduring such heartbreaking loss, or the fact that she lives her life as an open book, using even the hardest of her life’s chapters to inspire seemingly everyone she meets?

Almost 10 years ago, Freeman’s husband, Josh, was killed in a helicopter crash in Dagsboro, Del., and despite immense grief, the stay at home mother of three put on a business suit and took over the companies that her husband left behind. Today, Freeman is one of only a handful of women who hold part ownership in professional sports franchises (the Washington Wizards, Capitals and Mystics) and she has become a respected force to be reckoned with in the male dominated fields of construction, real estate and professional sports.

Yet, perhaps the side of Michelle Freeman that best exemplifies her tremendously tenacious and compassionate spirit is her love of the arts and her philanthropic work.

Freeman sat down with The Dispatch for an in-depth and personal look into her past and spoke about the future of the Freeman Stage.

 

Q: I remember years ago when we first met and you told me about your vision for the Freeman Stage. You said you wanted to change the fact that when you looked at Coastal Delaware you saw an arts desert. Years later, as you have watched the Freeman Stage and this community grow, have you essentially created an oasis in the arts desert?

A: From a humble place, the fact that you even say that makes my hands start to sweat, but if I was going to be very pragmatic about it and take the emotion out of it — because that question could actually make me cry — then yeah, I think we have. I think the Freeman Foundation, thanks to people like Patti Grimes and the group of people that she has put together to push this forward … I mean, 55,000, almost 60,000 people came to shows last year, and over 10,000 kids. That is kind of mind blowing to me. On a little wooden stage in Selbyville, Del., so I think little by little we are starting to make it happen.

Q: Your story is so unbelievably inspirational. It’s very well documented that life changed for you almost 10 years ago with the death of your husband, Josh. I read in an interview where you said that it feels like it was so long ago, but if you close your eyes, it feels like yesterday. Talk about looking back on those 10 years.

A: When I think about the last 10 years, what I think is that on any given day after a tragedy, you have a choice to either let the tragedy define you, or who you have become after the tragedy define you. That is literally a choice. I think that I live that on a daily basis, and there are days, especially since Matt’s (Haley) death, where without the faith that I have without the belief that I’m here for a reason, it all would have been overwhelming. And quite honestly, there were days in the last 10 years, and in the time post Matt’s death, which has been almost two years, people say ‘you’ve had two tragedies, how do you come out of that?’ I say, you wake up in the morning, you ask God for strength, you ask God to help you continue to find purpose and then you walk the walk. I think that is the most defining thing.

What grief does is stop you short of living. You can stay in grief so much that a part of you dies, and what grief can do is keep you from moving forward.

Q: You talk about overcoming grief, but even the most confident people oftentimes struggle with self-doubt. When you made that decision to step out of house and into the boardroom, talk about how you were accepted as a woman, and how you worked through that self doubt.

A: For me, it was self-preservation. One day I was lucky enough to stay home. I had dropped out of college to go into the real estate business, and Josh and I had the kind of marriage where we discussed this place, and these people and this business for years when we were married. If you look at this business, it’s really about the people and so you ask yourself, ‘do I trust anyone right now with the care of the people who work for me?’ For me, the answer was no.

Nobody is going to care-take my business or care enough about my business as I will. I had more going against me, if you think about it, then I had going for me. When I had a crisis in confidence, which was often, I used to dress very structured after Josh died, it was almost like those business suits were like an armor to the world. I was so broken and grief stricken inside and then I’d sit in these meetings and just be an absolute ball-buster. A lot of my grief came out as creative, needing to express myself, and needing to have a voice. I think the gender thing, honestly, I was unaware of. What I was aware of mostly was that I have this company that this Jewish man started 60-some years ago with nothing, and hundreds and thousands of people have worked there, and it’s my responsibility to keep it going because I knew that was Carl and Josh’s intention.

So, I didn’t even see gender. It wasn’t until I got recognized by Elle magazine in 2013 as one of the 10 most influential women in Washington and I realized that all the women were talking about gender and I was not. I was just surviving.

Q: So when you look back on it all now in hindsight, do you look at it differently?

A: Sure. I met with a capital markets guy the other day, because that’s what my job as CEO is, meeting with people for these lunches and talking about the direction of the company and what we are trying to accomplish and the growth mode that the Freeman companies are in. He said, ‘I never knew you, but I knew it was this male dominated business, and here’s the wife of the CEO’ and he said to me, ‘I gotta tell you that a bunch of us were pulling for you. We knew you had been dropped into this all-guy-high-testorerone-business.’

I think the business community looks back and thinks ‘wow, she made it 10 years’, because I think a lot of people thought I would fail. That makes me giggle and laugh, because I think if you talked to a lot of the VP’s that work for the company and you asked them to describe me in one word, I think they would say “tenacious.”

I’m on the small side, even though I wear a lot of high heels, and I’m very clumsy and I’m kind of goofy. But, when I get to the point where I really believe in something and I really believe in the people who are doing it with me, nothing is going to stop me. I think that tenacity is probably is what got me from 2006 to today.

Q: You mentioned earlier that sometimes people who have achieved success sometimes have a hard time helping those who are less fortunate because they don’t want to just give a hand-out. I think with the way you live your life and the things that you get involved in can show that it can be a teaching moment and it’s more than just a hand out. Yet, as you look at your circle of very successful people, do you think that people do enough to help others who have hardly anything?

A: Yeah, it’s funny. When I watch these weird shows around wealthy people like the Housewives crap or whatever, it’s so funny, because that’s not my experience. Maybe it is that birds of a feather that fly together, but the really wealthy people that I know are ruled by this idea that ‘to whom much is given, much is expected.’ This is something in your character that you see need, and you either give time, talent or treasure. That was interesting about dating Matt [Haley]. He too, and his companies were focused on ‘how do we change the world’, we aren’t just restaurants. I look at my sister Lisa and DiFebo’s and I think, you do what you can do.

You don’t have to be a millionaire to change the world, you just have to look at your unique set of gifts and talents and say, ‘how do I bring that to the world?’ We have a volunteer staff at the Freeman Stage of a 100 plus, and we could not do our shows without them. So, some people write the check and make stuff happen, and others just show up and help to make it happen. Organization could not exist without those people. I think my philanthropy is based on the Starfish principle. You know, there’s a guy walking down the beach and there are thousands of starfish on the beach and he’s throwing them back in the ocean. When someone says, ‘why are you chucking them back in the ocean, you aren’t making a difference’ and the guy says, ‘well, I did (make a difference) to that one.’

Q: You earlier mentioned Matt Haley, who passed away in 2014 in a tragic motorcycle accident in India. You both came from two different worlds, but you had very similar life experiences: You were both recovering addicts, you both wanted to make a difference in the world, and you both had become very successful professionally. Do you think that your relationship with Matt was a meeting of kindred spirits at a time when you both needed each other?

A: I think so. Not many people know this but when he was in India, he was writing. I was given his writing, and it was probably one of the greatest gifts that I’ve ever been given because he was writing like he was writing a letter to me. I think that both us felt like our whole lives had led us to one another. The interesting thing is that today, I think I can talk to you about it pretty cleanly, but eight months ago, I couldn’t have this conversation with you.

Because in a lot of ways, it was harder than my loss with Josh, because my loss with Josh, I could somehow rationalize. I remember saying, ‘why not me’ because I had been around all these military families and I come from this huge Italian family and we have been through tragedy and loss in our life, so I could say, ‘I know down the street that someone has just lost someone so why not me?’ The loss with Matt, it was just like, ‘Are you kidding me? Again?’

Q: Were you angry that you had to make that difficult choice of happiness over grief a second time?

A: Yeah, I was angry this time, and I had self-pity which I didn’t have when Josh died because I was so focused on the business. Certainly, the loss of Josh was magnified by the loss of Matt and the two kind of came together. Again, if not for my family and my friends and this business … at one point, I saved the business and then the business saved me.

Q: I know you are always looking ahead, always planning, always thinking, ‘how do we make it better and bigger and matter more to people?’ What is your hope and plan for future of the Freeman Stage?

A: When I think of the future, I think about this immediate summer. This will be a big push for programming this year. If we had eight national artist shows last year, maybe we’ll do 15 this year. So, this will be the push. All the while, not forgetting our Saturday mornings for kids and trying to continue to grow the next generation of artists and people who care about the arts.

I think the future of the Freeman Stage is that the reality is that we have outgrown our space. For one out of every three people, we try to bring to the Freeman Stage they say the physical plant of the facility doesn’t allow for the production of those shows. We will not leave Bayside. I think Bayside is the home of the Freeman Stage and that is where it will stay, so the question is ‘how do we fit a much larger venue in Bayside?’ I don’t think this will be the Freeman Stage. I think it will be underwritten by the Joshua M. Freeman Foundation, but it will have a different name that will be all-inclusive to the Mid-Atlantic arts organizations that serve in it because this idea is now way past Josh Freeman.

It started with Josh Freeman, but this is really about the people that we can touch, and who attend, and who play there. So, I think in the next few years, you’ll see us unravel a new name, announce a new space and then we’ll go into a capital campaign where every dollar will be important. It’s worth it, every dollar.

(To listen to the entire conversation, click online to www.mdcoastdispatch.com/podcasts.)

 

Q&A: Michelle Freeman Reflects On Faith, Culture, Life, Tragedy

t600-Michelle_Freeman_2014-1

SELBYVILLE — It’s hard to pinpoint what is more remarkable about Michelle D. Freeman, President and CEO of the Carl Freeman Companies, The Joshua Freeman Foundation, and the Freeman Stage at Bayside.

Is it her underdog-like story of achieving so much despite enduring such heartbreaking loss, or the fact that she lives her life as an open book, using even the hardest of her life’s chapters to inspire seemingly everyone she meets?

Almost 10 years ago, Freeman’s husband, Josh, was killed in a helicopter crash in Dagsboro, Del., and despite immense grief, the stay at home mother of three put on a business suit and took over the companies that her husband left behind. Today, Freeman is one of only a handful of women who hold part ownership in professional sports franchises (the Washington Wizards, Capitals and Mystics) and she has become a respected force to be reckoned with in the male dominated fields of construction, real estate and professional sports.

Yet, perhaps the side of Michelle Freeman that best exemplifies her tremendously tenacious and compassionate spirit is her love of the arts and her philanthropic work.

Freeman sat down with The Dispatch for an in-depth and personal look into her past and spoke about the future of the Freeman Stage.

 

Q: I remember years ago when we first met and you told me about your vision for the Freeman Stage. You said you wanted to change the fact that when you looked at Coastal Delaware you saw an arts desert. Years later, as you have watched the Freeman Stage and this community grow, have you essentially created an oasis in the arts desert?

A: From a humble place, the fact that you even say that makes my hands start to sweat, but if I was going to be very pragmatic about it and take the emotion out of it — because that question could actually make me cry — then yeah, I think we have. I think the Freeman Foundation, thanks to people like Patti Grimes and the group of people that she has put together to push this forward … I mean, 55,000, almost 60,000 people came to shows last year, and over 10,000 kids. That is kind of mind blowing to me. On a little wooden stage in Selbyville, Del., so I think little by little we are starting to make it happen.

Q: Your story is so unbelievably inspirational. It’s very well documented that life changed for you almost 10 years ago with the death of your husband, Josh. I read in an interview where you said that it feels like it was so long ago, but if you close your eyes, it feels like yesterday. Talk about looking back on those 10 years.

A: When I think about the last 10 years, what I think is that on any given day after a tragedy, you have a choice to either let the tragedy define you, or who you have become after the tragedy define you. That is literally a choice. I think that I live that on a daily basis, and there are days, especially since Matt’s (Haley) death, where without the faith that I have without the belief that I’m here for a reason, it all would have been overwhelming. And quite honestly, there were days in the last 10 years, and in the time post Matt’s death, which has been almost two years, people say ‘you’ve had two tragedies, how do you come out of that?’ I say, you wake up in the morning, you ask God for strength, you ask God to help you continue to find purpose and then you walk the walk. I think that is the most defining thing.

What grief does is stop you short of living. You can stay in grief so much that a part of you dies, and what grief can do is keep you from moving forward.

Q: You talk about overcoming grief, but even the most confident people oftentimes struggle with self-doubt. When you made that decision to step out of house and into the boardroom, talk about how you were accepted as a woman, and how you worked through that self doubt.

A: For me, it was self-preservation. One day I was lucky enough to stay home. I had dropped out of college to go into the real estate business, and Josh and I had the kind of marriage where we discussed this place, and these people and this business for years when we were married. If you look at this business, it’s really about the people and so you ask yourself, ‘do I trust anyone right now with the care of the people who work for me?’ For me, the answer was no.

Nobody is going to care-take my business or care enough about my business as I will. I had more going against me, if you think about it, then I had going for me. When I had a crisis in confidence, which was often, I used to dress very structured after Josh died, it was almost like those business suits were like an armor to the world. I was so broken and grief stricken inside and then I’d sit in these meetings and just be an absolute ball-buster. A lot of my grief came out as creative, needing to express myself, and needing to have a voice. I think the gender thing, honestly, I was unaware of. What I was aware of mostly was that I have this company that this Jewish man started 60-some years ago with nothing, and hundreds and thousands of people have worked there, and it’s my responsibility to keep it going because I knew that was Carl and Josh’s intention.

So, I didn’t even see gender. It wasn’t until I got recognized by Elle magazine in 2013 as one of the 10 most influential women in Washington and I realized that all the women were talking about gender and I was not. I was just surviving.

Q: So when you look back on it all now in hindsight, do you look at it differently?

A: Sure. I met with a capital markets guy the other day, because that’s what my job as CEO is, meeting with people for these lunches and talking about the direction of the company and what we are trying to accomplish and the growth mode that the Freeman companies are in. He said, ‘I never knew you, but I knew it was this male dominated business, and here’s the wife of the CEO’ and he said to me, ‘I gotta tell you that a bunch of us were pulling for you. We knew you had been dropped into this all-guy-high-testorerone-business.’

I think the business community looks back and thinks ‘wow, she made it 10 years’, because I think a lot of people thought I would fail. That makes me giggle and laugh, because I think if you talked to a lot of the VP’s that work for the company and you asked them to describe me in one word, I think they would say “tenacious.”

I’m on the small side, even though I wear a lot of high heels, and I’m very clumsy and I’m kind of goofy. But, when I get to the point where I really believe in something and I really believe in the people who are doing it with me, nothing is going to stop me. I think that tenacity is probably is what got me from 2006 to today.

Q: You mentioned earlier that sometimes people who have achieved success sometimes have a hard time helping those who are less fortunate because they don’t want to just give a hand-out. I think with the way you live your life and the things that you get involved in can show that it can be a teaching moment and it’s more than just a hand out. Yet, as you look at your circle of very successful people, do you think that people do enough to help others who have hardly anything?

A: Yeah, it’s funny. When I watch these weird shows around wealthy people like the Housewives crap or whatever, it’s so funny, because that’s not my experience. Maybe it is that birds of a feather that fly together, but the really wealthy people that I know are ruled by this idea that ‘to whom much is given, much is expected.’ This is something in your character that you see need, and you either give time, talent or treasure. That was interesting about dating Matt [Haley]. He too, and his companies were focused on ‘how do we change the world’, we aren’t just restaurants. I look at my sister Lisa and DiFebo’s and I think, you do what you can do.

You don’t have to be a millionaire to change the world, you just have to look at your unique set of gifts and talents and say, ‘how do I bring that to the world?’ We have a volunteer staff at the Freeman Stage of a 100 plus, and we could not do our shows without them. So, some people write the check and make stuff happen, and others just show up and help to make it happen. Organization could not exist without those people. I think my philanthropy is based on the Starfish principle. You know, there’s a guy walking down the beach and there are thousands of starfish on the beach and he’s throwing them back in the ocean. When someone says, ‘why are you chucking them back in the ocean, you aren’t making a difference’ and the guy says, ‘well, I did (make a difference) to that one.’

Q: You earlier mentioned Matt Haley, who passed away in 2014 in a tragic motorcycle accident in India. You both came from two different worlds, but you had very similar life experiences: You were both recovering addicts, you both wanted to make a difference in the world, and you both had become very successful professionally. Do you think that your relationship with Matt was a meeting of kindred spirits at a time when you both needed each other?

A: I think so. Not many people know this but when he was in India, he was writing. I was given his writing, and it was probably one of the greatest gifts that I’ve ever been given because he was writing like he was writing a letter to me. I think that both us felt like our whole lives had led us to one another. The interesting thing is that today, I think I can talk to you about it pretty cleanly, but eight months ago, I couldn’t have this conversation with you.

Because in a lot of ways, it was harder than my loss with Josh, because my loss with Josh, I could somehow rationalize. I remember saying, ‘why not me’ because I had been around all these military families and I come from this huge Italian family and we have been through tragedy and loss in our life, so I could say, ‘I know down the street that someone has just lost someone so why not me?’ The loss with Matt, it was just like, ‘Are you kidding me? Again?’

Q: Were you angry that you had to make that difficult choice of happiness over grief a second time?

A: Yeah, I was angry this time, and I had self-pity which I didn’t have when Josh died because I was so focused on the business. Certainly, the loss of Josh was magnified by the loss of Matt and the two kind of came together. Again, if not for my family and my friends and this business … at one point, I saved the business and then the business saved me.

Q: I know you are always looking ahead, always planning, always thinking, ‘how do we make it better and bigger and matter more to people?’ What is your hope and plan for future of the Freeman Stage?

A: When I think of the future, I think about this immediate summer. This will be a big push for programming this year. If we had eight national artist shows last year, maybe we’ll do 15 this year. So, this will be the push. All the while, not forgetting our Saturday mornings for kids and trying to continue to grow the next generation of artists and people who care about the arts.

I think the future of the Freeman Stage is that the reality is that we have outgrown our space. For one out of every three people, we try to bring to the Freeman Stage they say the physical plant of the facility doesn’t allow for the production of those shows. We will not leave Bayside. I think Bayside is the home of the Freeman Stage and that is where it will stay, so the question is ‘how do we fit a much larger venue in Bayside?’ I don’t think this will be the Freeman Stage. I think it will be underwritten by the Joshua M. Freeman Foundation, but it will have a different name that will be all-inclusive to the Mid-Atlantic arts organizations that serve in it because this idea is now way past Josh Freeman.

It started with Josh Freeman, but this is really about the people that we can touch, and who attend, and who play there. So, I think in the next few years, you’ll see us unravel a new name, announce a new space and then we’ll go into a capital campaign where every dollar will be important. It’s worth it, every dollar.

(To listen to the entire conversation, click online to www.mdcoastdispatch.com/podcasts.)

National Search Likely To Replace Worcester Superintendent; Wilson To Serve On Interim Basis Till Summer ’17

Jerry-Wilson

NEWARK — After almost 40 years in education and four years in Worcester County, Superintendent of Schools Dr. Jerry Wilson says he’s ready to do something else.

Prior to the Worcester County Board of Education budget meeting on Tuesday morning, Wilson announced that he will not seek re-appointment at the end of his four year term, which expires June 30.

“My family and I have evaluated our plans for the next four years and beyond,” said Wilson. “I’m not able to commit to serving as the superintendent for the next four years as required by Maryland law.”

Wilson, who was hired in 2012, replacing former superintendent Dr. Jon Andes, says his future is not completely certain, but hints that he’s leaning more toward retirement than a career change.

“When I looked at all the things that I want to do in life, I looked at those four years and realized that it was beyond the commitment that I was willing to make,” said Wilson. “We have grandchildren in Colorado who touch my heart deeply and my daughter is in Wisconsin, so our family is spread out across the country.”

Wilson has been a superintendent for 22 years in Colorado, Idaho, Oregon, Wyoming, England and here in Maryland.  He also spent 13 years as a teacher and three as a principal.

His decision wasn’t a surprise to the Board of Education, but it was notable that new Board of Education President Johnathan Cook took a massive deep breath before reading his prepared public “thank you” to Wilson for his efforts over the past four years.

“During his tenure, Dr. Wilson has positioned our schools with a strategic direction for the future,” said Cook. “With his digital initiative, Worcester County public schools will continue to foster innovative education and leadership.”

Fellow board member Bob Rothermel echoed Cook’s praise for Wilson’s work, noting that the superintendent came into town at a difficult time in the education world: a curriculum change.

“I have nothing but the utmost respect for this man, his credentials and his integrity,” said Rothermel. “He came in with a high achieving school system, and he kept it as a high achieving school system.”

Rothermel pointed out Wilson’s efforts in helping the county through the transition to the controversial Common Core curriculum.

“Children should be taught how to think and not what to think and I think that’s emblematic of what Dr. Wilson tried to do here,” he said.  “Those were tough times, but we’ve seen that our students have risen to those new standards.”

Cook explained the board’s unanimous decision to keep Wilson on for another year via a contract extension to levy enough time for the board to find a suitable replacement.

He will finish this school year as superintendent and will serve the entirety of the 2017 school year until his contract expires on June 30th, 2017.

“I think the board will go through a very deliberative process to select the next four-year superintendent,” said Wilson, “and I think selecting a superintendent is one of the most important things that a board does.”

Wilson says he’s looking forward to the next year and a half of work in order to, as he puts it, “continue the work on all of the initiatives.  There’s much to be done, and our work never stops.”

Carrie Sterrs, Worcester County Public Schools Coordinator of Public Relations and Special Programs, called Wilson’s announcement bittersweet.

“On a personal level, I’m very happy for Dr. Wilson.  He’s had a wonderful career and I know he is very far from his grandchildren and his kids”, said Sterrs, “but on a professional level, I’m very sad. I’ve really enjoyed working with Dr. Wilson and I’ve learned so much from him.”

Wilson currently makes a little more than $172,000 in his current position, but it is unknown at this time whether his salary will be altered for his one-year contract extension.

Cook says the board of education will be putting together a search committee for Wilson’s eventual replacement in the coming weeks.

“As a University of Maryland alum, this job has given me the opportunity to come full circle in my career”, said Wilson, “I’m grateful to have been provided the opportunity to lead the highest performing school system in the state of Maryland, and it was an honor to work with the student of Worcester County these past four years.

 

Winter Storm Ravages Coast, Iconic Pier Severely Damaged Again

For the third time in five years, the iconic Ocean City fishing pier suffered severe damage during last weekend’s storm as waves nearly as high as the structure itself smashed support pilings. Already plans are underway to restore the historic pier.

Photo by Nick Denny

OCEAN CITY – Winter Storm Jonas claimed a hefty chunk of one of Ocean City’s most well-known landmarks and severely damaged several public parking lots on both the Virginia and the Maryland side of Assateague Island National Seashore. Here’s a brief wrap-up of the damage assessment and the clean-up effort in and around the region:

PIER TO BE REBUILT…AGAIN

For the third time in five years, a large portion of the iconic fishing pier near the Inlet was destroyed by a storm.

“The ocean was angry and the waves were high and they took out the end again,” said Ocean City Mayor Rick Meehan on Monday. “I’ve been in contract with the principals, Bayshore Development, which is the franchise holder of the fishing pier, and they’ve begun the study of what needs to be done, what materials need to be ordered and what contractors need to be hired in order to replace that pier, which is their responsibility.”

A hundred foot section of the pier was ripped off during Superstorm Sandy in 2012, and a winter storm in February 2014 left the end of it hanging steeply downward toward the ocean waters below. In both cases, the pier was repaired and reopened by Memorial Day weekend.

Meehan says Memorial Day will once again be the target date for this time around.

Yet, while Mother Nature has been quite unkind to the 489-foot structure in recent years, it has a long history of rebounding after being battered and by the elements, ice, and even fire.

In February 1979, a prolonged and unusually cold winter actually froze the ocean and huge chunks of ice crushed around 140 feet from the seaward end of the historic pier. Following that destruction, the existing pier was rebuilt to its current length.

The pier was first completed in 1907 and was first named Taylor’s Pier after the leader of the development group that constructed it. In December 1925, a huge fire destroyed the pier and three blocks of the downtown area. In 1929, the new Sinepuxent Pier and Improvement Company obtained a franchise from the town to build a new 700-foot ocean fishing pier on the site of the old one destroyed by the 1925 fire. At the base of the pier was constructed the famous Pier Ballroom, which, during the height of its popularity, was one of the most popular destinations in the resort as elegantly dressed couples would dance to big band music by jazz greats Glenn Miller and Benny Goodman.

In 1959, a new pier company took over the franchise and attempted to build amusement concessions across the beach. However, the plan was voted down in a special referendum vote by city residents after months of controversy. The pier then slipped into years of decline after the controversial referendum vote, until it was taken over by Jolly Roger owner Buddy Jenkins in 1975.

Dean Langrell, director of sales and marketing at Bayshore Development Corp, said that the organization realizes that sometimes you have to take the good with the bad when it comes to the weather.

“You go into business in Ocean City knowing there will be some setbacks,” he said. “It’s an iconic part of the town and we want to make sure that we bring it back.”

LOTS OF DUNE DAMAGE IN OC

Ocean City Engineer Terry McGean said it’s too soon to tell if there will be emergency beach replenishment to repair the damaged dune system.

Ocean City’s protective dune took heavy losses from one end of the resort to the other. Pictured above, the dune at 37th Street in front of the Castle in the Sand got an unexpected visit from a street-end sign that traveled nearly 60 blocks during the storm. Photo by Shawn Soper

Ocean City’s protective dune took heavy losses from one end of the resort to the other. Pictured above, the dune at 37th Street in front of the Castle in the Sand got an unexpected visit from a street-end sign that traveled nearly 60 blocks during the storm.
Photo by Shawn Soper

“We will be working on the dune.  That is going to happen,” he said. “The second piece to that is will it involved dredging and that’s too early to tell.  It’s in our mind and we are discussing that.”

McGean drove the length of the beach with the Army Corps of Engineers earlier this week to assess the damage and said that about a third of the dune was destroyed in many places and up to as much as half of the dune in other spots.

Meanwhile, Public Works Director Hal Adkins said on Monday much of the initial clean-up and restoration work thus far has been concentrated in the heavily-damaged downtown area around the Inlet and Boardwalk areas although the work will continue through the week and focus on the entire resort. Throughout the week, bulldozers were moving mountains of sand from the Inlet parking lot and rebuilding the beach.

“Public Works is currently focused on sand and debris removal from the Inlet parking lot,” said Adkins. “We started Sunday morning. We are also clearing debris and stockpiling it from the beach at 27th Street south. In the coming days we intend to complete debris removal from the Boardwalk, complete the Inlet lot clean-up and complete any clean-up in our residential neighborhoods.”

Adkins said the decision to begin tackling the rest of the beach will hinge largely on the determination of the city and its state and federal partners.

“It our intent to wait and see what Terry [McGean], the DNR and the Army Corps decide relative to the beach north of 27th Street before any action is taken by Public Works in those areas,” he said.

NATIONAL PARKS’ PARKING LOTS TAKE A BEATING

Liz Davis, Assateague Island National Seashore’s Assistant Chief of Interpretation and Education, says the Maryland side of Assateague fared far better than the Virginia side during Jonas.

The beaches and dunes in the Assateague Island National Seashore, along with neighboring Assateague Island State Park and Chincoteague lost a remarkable amount of sand during the storm. Unlike the developed Ocean City to the north, state and federal parks officials generally let the barrier island restore itself through natural processes. Photo courtesy Assateague Island National Seashore

The beaches and dunes in the Assateague Island National Seashore, along with neighboring Assateague Island State Park and Chincoteague lost a remarkable amount of sand during the storm. Unlike the developed Ocean City to the north, state and federal parks officials generally let the barrier island restore itself through natural processes.
Photo courtesy Assateague Island National Seashore

“We are doing okay,” said Davis. “We had the typical overwash in the spots we normally have overwash, but the reason why we had so much sand movement is the winds and the waves were really high.”

Those swirling winds and crashing waves also unveiled many of the hunks of ships and other assorted wreckage that have been on the island for decades.

“It’s amazing to see how this storm cleared all of these shipwrecks and old fence so clearly,” said Davis. “You wouldn’t even believe that a day prior they were hidden beneath four feet of sand.”

According to Assateague officials, the NOAA buoy closest to the island recorded offshore wave heights at as high was 27 feet. Throughout the storm, the recorded wind speeds blew consistently in the 40 miles per hour range with a few readings of 65 mph and even as high as 85 mph recorded.

On the Virginia side, near Chincoteague, Davis said all four parking lots have been destroyed and will aim to be rebuilt and reopened to the public by Memorial Day.

On the Maryland side, Davis said the storm could slightly delay an ongoing project to improve the parking at the south ocean beach and the life of the dune trial. The project, which will create an expanded clay base parking lot near the life of the dune trail to replace the parking lost at the south ocean beach lot will also have a boardwalk that will link the life of the dune trail parking lot with the south ocean beach for visitors to gain beach access.

Davis says that while park rangers at Assateague take a much more “hands-off” approach than Ocean City does when it comes to repairing the coastline after a storm, she says it’s getting much more difficult to doubt the looming realties about the changes in nature.

“It’s so in your face,” said Davis. “We are here every day and you can see the amazing changes that have occurred. Sea level rise is evident, the marshes are changing, and in my 24-year career, we have had to move the developed dune area back twice.”

Davis says she’s noticed that because storms are getting stronger, and larger, and are happening more often, she worries about what that means for the future of the island.

“We know that at some point, we are going to have to retreat from this island,” she said. “Probably not in my lifetime, but someday.”

Q&A With City Engineer Terry McGean

Ocean City, MD, Nov. 5, 2012 --(from left) Terry McGean, city en

OCEAN CITY- Winterstorm Jonas was certainly not Ocean City Engineer Terry McGean’s first rodeo when it comes to overseeing the clean-up efforts after a major storm in the resort.

He’s been at this for over three decades and has been on the front lines for some of the most powerful storms in the resort’s history, including Superstorm Sandy.  Yet, while McGean says Ocean City has had more than its fair share of experience with intense storms over the years, the biggest thing to remember is that the city learns from each storm and improves its preparatory efforts accordingly.

However, in recent years, McGean says that powerful storms have been happening much more than usual, and that unfortunate fact seems to justify the immense resources dedicated to securing our coastline and our community from the sheer brute force that Mother Nature often throws our way.

Q: So, are we starting this conversation the way we have many times in the past: Ocean City got lucky.  Is that the big takeaway from this storm?

A: Yeah, I think the good news is that we were pretty fortunate. Once again, the beach and the dunes did their job.  We had no oceanside flooding. We had bayside flooding, water in the streets and it was relatively minor, and certainly not to the extent of what we saw during Sandy. We had some fears and were getting some predictions that the tides might be at Sandy elevations and that would have been much worse bayside flooding. But again, we didn’t see those tide levels and certainly on the ocean, while the tide wasn’t that high, the difference between this storm and Joaquin was that the seas were much rougher. It looks like we did experience some higher beach erosion and dune damage than what I was initially hoping for prior to the storm.

Q: I know you went out earlier this week with the Army Corps of Engineers to assess the damage and to look at the beach and to see what is left and determine what you are going to have to do in the wake of this storm.  Tell me about that ride down the beach.

A: The good news is that we have a beautiful, large sand bar right off shore, and that will come back and reattach to the beach. It was good to see that and it was the first time I was able to see the beach at a good low tide. So, we have a lot of good sand material in the system that will reattach itself and affords us protection from future storms moving forward. The bad news is that the dune suffered some considerable damage.  In no areas did we lose all of the dune, but in some areas we lost probably about a third to half of the dune. Mostly in our usual hotspots:  33rd street, 75th to 85th streets, a little bit on Condo Row, and then up from about 144th to 146th. Our first order of business is to get debris off the beach, and the next order of business will be to restore some beach access areas so we can get vehicles on the beach. The state will be starting that on Monday with contractors coming in. We also need to get some better survey information. We know we have sand material built up, especially on the south end. I think the next order of business is to haul that material up and begin dune repairs. We are also kind of fortunate that we are also doing some canal dredging. I went up and looked at some of the sand we got yesterday (from the dredging) and it looks like we have some really nice sand, so that quickly changed our direction.  Instead of us trucking it off site to a location in Bishopville, we are going to take that sand and use it to repair the dune.

Q: So that sand that is in the system is either going to be moved, repurposed, or naturally allowed to reattach to the system.  For people who aren’t overly familiar with how long this process takes, how long does it take for the sand that has created that sand bar just off shore, to reattach itself to the beach naturally?

A: It will depend a little bit on which way the wind blows and whether or not we get another nor’easter here in the next few weeks. Assuming we don’t get another nor’easter for a few weeks, and we get a nice northwesterly breeze, which is what we typically see, I would expect that sandbar to start reattaching itself in three or four weeks. You can go out there and see it right now, it’s pretty amazing.

Q: During a storm, the pictures we see are quite dramatic, and after the storm leaves, those pictures are equally as dramatic and in some cases, more so.  But, what has always been remarkable to me is how quickly the city responds to the clean-up effort.  Try and quantify the day after the storm, that Herculean effort to try and clean up after the storm.

A: I guess the easiest way to put it into perspective is that we are trying to move sand instead of snow. It is very similar to that effort. We are immediately trying to get things back open. We are mobilizing crews and bringing people in on overtime, just like they are doing on the other side of the bridge to deal with snow, but we are doing it with sand, and snow fence and debris. It’s something we do, not super regularly, but it’s not out of the ordinary. We have plans put in place, we know who to call, and we know how to take care of it.

Q: We sort of got a winter’s worth of different types of precipitation in 24-48 hours, so was there anything about this storm that made the situation that much more dire or challenging than other storms; particularly, the cold weather and the colder flood waters?

A: Again, we were lucky because the tides didn’t get so high. We did have the National Guard vehicles in place that allow us to evacuate people should the need arise through some pretty high water. The issue for us, and probably our biggest challenge was that the same guys that were running the snow plows were also the ones clearing the sand. They haven’t had a lot of rest, and it has been very taxing on them.

Q: As you look northward, at some of the smaller and much skinnier Delaware beaches and the damage that this storm caused, what does that tell you about our dune system and how Ocean City has learned to prepare for storms in general?

A: I think the first thing it shows you is how important it is to have both the dune and the beach. If you just build the dune without building up the beach in front of it to protect it, it can go away very quickly. Once that dune is gone, you are way more vulnerable. So having that beach there to absorb that wave energy in front of the dune is very important, and I think we’ve seen the foresight in the building limit line in not allowing construction to continually encroach the East. For the city council to have that foresight in the 70’s, I think has been a tremendous asset to the town in protection.

Q: If you talk to people in the community, you hear some of the same sentiments expressed that we are talking about: ‘we got really lucky’, ‘we were prepared’, and ‘the dunes did their job’.  But, the other thing you hear is the question of ‘what if we got hit again?’  Just how vulnerable are we right now if another storm were to come in a week, or two weeks, or a month?

A: In my opinion, we are in pretty good shape for another storm. So if we got another one right now, before we’d had a chance to do some repairs to the dunes, after that one, I think we’d be in much worse shape. We have another storm in us with the amount of dune we have left.  But, we are not wasting any time.  We are out there today starting to repair it, and we will continue those efforts as rapidly as we can to make sure that we have that full level protection from the dunes. So, I’m comfortable with one more storm, but I think a second storm would leave us (vulnerable) in a lot of areas.  We saw that happen in 1998 and in 1991 and 1992 when we had some quick back to back storms that left us with no dune at all. That’s what we are trying to avoid.

Q: You have been doing this a long time, and you have many storms under your belt as far as cleanup and preparation.  There’s a growing conversation from scientists, and people who live in coastal communities and from those who don’t, that say that storms are getting stronger, bigger and becoming these ‘freaks of mother nature’, so to speak. In your purview, as you compare all the storms that you’ve worked on, are these storms in recent years any different than the ones we’ve seen in the past?

A: I think the big difference is that we are seeing them more frequently. If I’ve noticed anything, it’s that. It used to be that we would have four years between storms, and it seems like we are getting them every other year now. We’ve been fortunate in that we’ve been able to stay on our four-year beach renourishment cycle.  They’ve hit, but we’ve had enough beach to repair it, but I think that, at least in the near term, they have been more frequent.

Q: In your talk with the Army Corps of Engineers, was their talk about doing emergency beach replenishment or is that something that you’ll determine in the next few weeks after you see how the system repairs itself naturally?

A: That’s a two-part question. We will be doing work on the dune. That is going to happen. The second piece to that is will it involve dredging, and that’s too early to tell. It’s in our mind and we are discussing that. I think the need for that is much more likely than it was after Joaquin. So, that’s a very serious consideration right now.

 

 

 

Legislature Overrides Hogan’s Veto Of Online Travel Tax Bill

ANNAPOLIS — A third party hotel bookings sales tax bill that Governor Larry Hogan vetoed last year will now become law after that veto was overridden by the Maryland House of Delegates and Senate on Thursday.

Senate Bill 190, one of six pieces of legislation that was vetoed last year by Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan, aimed to level the playing field and clarify the existing laws on the books when it comes to booking hotel rooms online in the state.

Supporters claim the bill is needed to close a loophole in sales tax collection as hotels charge the tax on bookings made through their own websites and then pay money to the state.

Third party sites like Travelocity and Expedia don’t have to do that, and that has people like Senator Richard Madaleno, who represents Montgomery County and spearheaded the bill and the override effort, crying foul for Maryland consumers.

“Imagine if you found out a neighborhood store was charging you sales tax and in the end was pocketing part of it and only sending part of that to a state,” Madaleno said in a video pitch released last week to supporters of the override effort, “you’d be pretty upset.  They are hiding behind a loophole in the law that they claim allows them to pocket part of that money that you, the consumer, have already paid.”

From a more technical perspective, online travel companies and hotels collect the same amount of money when a room is booked. Furthermore, hotels remit sales tax based on the rate advertised to and then collected from the consumer. When a transaction is made using an online travel company, or OTC, the tax that is remitted is based on the pre-negotiated or quasi-wholesale rate that OTCs pay hotels for the room and essentially pocket the difference, which is estimated between $3-5 million annually.

Hogan vetoed the bill because the issue has been tied up in court in the Comptroller’s office’s Travelocity v. Comptroller case and wanted to “respect a longstanding practice of not passing legislation that would directly affect matters being litigated in a pending court case,” according to his letter to Senate President Mike Miller on May 22, 2015.

Susan Jones, executive director of the Ocean City Hotel-Motel-Restaurant Association, said she agrees with the governor.

“It’s a tax issue and something that shouldn’t be lobbied on the floor, it should be handled in a courtroom,” said Jones, “because what will happen is that if this online sites lose and have to pay more tax, they are going to raise their rates.”

Philip Minardi, Vice President of Communications and Public Affairs for Travel Technology Association, called the override a “clear signal to Maryland taxpayers who demanded a new direction during the last election that many in Annapolis didn’t get the message.”

Minardi claims that the bill will increase taxes on over 200 community travel agencies and countless travel service providers.

“Because of today’s vote, Maryland’s tourism economy will pay the price,” he said. “Maryland taxpayers who travel in-state will pay for these taxes in the form of higher room rates.”

However, Hogan, in an interview from May 2015, doesn’t see the bill as a tax increase.

“It doesn’t cost Maryland taxpayers anything at all. The online companies are charging a fee, a tax if you will, and not remitting that to the state,” Hogan said. “The consumers are already paying that money and the OTC’s are skimming it off the top.”

Madaleno and other supporters of the bill say this fixes a loophole that was never intended to be created when the tax system was create.

“These tax dollars, which go to promote Maryland tourism shouldn’t be going out of state into the pockets of a handful of companies who run these online travel companies,” said Madaleno.

Jones worries that the rate hikes will impact independent hoteliers that utilize OTC’s the most.

“Seventy-five percent of our members are independent hotels,” said Jones. “This is going to impact a lot of people because the OTC’s won’t raise the franchise commission rates, they’ll do it to the independents.”

The veto of the bill was overridden by a 30-16 vote of the Senate and an 89-52 vote of the House of Delegates.

Minardi expressed disappointment that the legislature has maintained its typical approach to small business.

“Whether you understand that local small businesses will be harmed by this new tax or not, today’s vote sends a clear message to the rest of the country that Maryland has not changed its taxing ways and is still not ‘open for business,’” said Minardi. “Despite Governor Hogan’s best attempt to stave off yet another tax increase, the legislature just could not help themselves. If the last election cycle is any indicator, voting for this new tax will surely be a factor in the next election.”

Legislation Eyed To Localize Prosecution Of Bomb Threat To Impacted Jurisdictions

Seahawk Road is pictured Tuesday morning when parents were scrambling to pick up their high school students from Stephen Decatur Middle School after the third bomb threat in a week at the school. Photo by Shawn Soper

OCEAN CITY – In the wake of multiple unfounded bomb threats made to local schools over the last two weeks, Delegate Mary Beth Carozza (District 38C) has introduced a bomb threat prosecution bill in Annapolis.

House Bill 121, officially titled Criminal Law-False Statement Concerning Destructive Device or Toxic Material-Venue, would allow law enforcement to prosecute the crime of making a false bomb threat in the county in which the threat was located, rather than from where the call originated.

“We need to make sure our law enforcement agencies have every possible tool to go after and prosecute those who are threatening our students and families,” said Carozza.  “The high number of false threats targeting our local schools are causing major disruptions in our home community over the last several days only heighten the need for the General Assembly to pass this legislation this session.”

Carozza’s bill was first introduced by former Delegate and current Worcester County Sheriff’s Office Lieutenant Mike McDermott and has passed through the Maryland House of Delegates in past sessions.

“It is a no brainer,” said McDermott, “it is a common sense approach to bringing these people to justice in the county where the crime was committed, rather than where the call came from.”

McDermott said even though the bill passed through the House on several occasions, it never got through the Senate for “political reasons.”

“Ironically, I spoke with Delegate Carozza back in December about bringing this bill back to Annapolis, and I think with all that’s happened in the past few weeks, it has very good chance to get through both the house and the senate,” said McDermott.

McDermott points to a threat a few years ago when the threatening call was traced to Montgomery County but impacted the lower shore.  He says this bill would make it so the caller would be prosecuted in the area that was most impacted by the threat.

“It’s a huge drain on resources and it causes a lot of fear in our area, so wherever the call came from shouldn’t matter,” said McDermott. “We should be able to bring those people here and convict them of their crime.”

Carozza has built up a bipartisan coalition of cosponsors, including several members of the House Judiciary Committee, while fellow Worcester County delegate Charles Otto is a co-sponsor on the bill.

On the senate side, Carozza says republican senator Mike Hough (District 4) has agreed to be a sponsor of the bill.  Hough, who represents Carroll and Frederick counties is a former delegate and also currently sits on the senate judiciary committee.

“This bill is my top legislative priority not only because of what this means to our local community, but also because this issue hits very close to home for me since I am a graduate of the Worcester County public school system,” said Carozza.

Carozza said she also received support for re-introducing this bill from Worcester County State’s Attorney Beau Oglesby, the Worcester Sheriff’s Office, the Wicomico State’s Attorney’s Office and Wicomico’s Sheriff’s Office.

The first hearing on the bill will be next month in the House Judiciary Committee.

“The fact that we have a hearing scheduled already so soon in the session highlights the sense of urgency to move on this matter as quickly as possible give the recent bomb threats our schools,” said Carozza. “The groundwork has been laid and we have early bipartisan support coupled with the fact that this legislation has passed in past session bodes very well for success this session.”

 

‘Swatting’ Can Be Challenging To Trace For Authorities

BERLIN — Investigators may not know the “who” or the “why” when it comes to multiple bomb threats that have been levied against local schools in the past two weeks, but they may know “how” it’s being done.

“The FBI is involved and aware of what we are dealing with,” said Lt. Edward Schreier of the Worcester County Sheriff’s Office. “This is not limited to the lower shore.”

While investigators wouldn’t say for sure what was being used to pull off these robo-call bomb threats, they hinted that it may be associated with what hackers call “swatting” and “spoofing,” and using Voice Over Internet Protocol (VoIP) with the help of a SIP Trunk (Session Initiation Protocol) to essentially place multiple calls at one time and disguise where the calls are coming from using data lines, rather than traditional phone lines.

“It appears to be something like that,” said Schreier, “but we are looking into all available technology in regards to this incident.”

A Tech-Based Crime

According to Dave Huras, president of the Communications Fraud Control Association, swatting is a term used in the hacker world to describe a spoof call that is done with the intent to elicit a response from law enforcement officials.

“Sometimes hackers want to show how talented they are so they do these things to show off essentially,” he said, “but with swatting, it’s sometimes done merely to create chaos and mess with the police. I don’t know what the motivation here is obviously, but what I do know is that swatting is taken very seriously and law enforcement will prosecute to the fullest extent if they catch them.”

But catching up to those behind these threatening calls to schools could prove to be difficult.

“SIP trunks are extremely difficult to trace”, said Sam Card, CEO of Cards Technology, “and if the hacker knows what they are doing, you could dial a bunch of different numbers at a time, throw in an automated message and spoof the caller ID with a different number to cover your traces.”

Card also pointed out the ease in which to acquire this type of technology.

“SIP trunks and VoIP technology are appealing because it’s a cheaper alternative than the traditional twisted copper land lines,” he said, “so people are switching over because of the price and all of the things the technology allows you to do.”

“It Happens More Than We’d Like’

Yet, as with any technology or product, things can often be used for dark or illegal purposes.

“It unfortunately happens more than we’d like in our industry,” said Huras. “But, while there are some things that technology allows us that law enforcement has a hard time keeping up with, everything leaves a trace somewhere. It can just take a lot of time.”

For instance, Huras says that investigators are likely fast tracking the subpoena process to gain access to phone and URL numbers, while sweeping local phone carriers for suspicious trends and data.  Yet, that data could have been masked and misdirected in hopes of leading investigators through the endless maze of cyberspace.

“All of this stuff adds layer upon layer of steps for law enforcement,” said Huras. “The investigation can end up like a multi-layered beast with many complex dance steps that must be carefully mastered and executed to even get close to solving it.”

Lt. Mike McDermott, who is one of the investigators on this case for the Worcester County Sheriff’s Office, said progress is being made.

“We have been able to pull back the layers of the onion in this case,” he said, “and it’s very tedious IT stuff.  It’s all about misdirection, and it’s not just happening here, it’s happening all over the country.”

McDermott also revealed that the young juvenile that was taken into custody in connection with the first bomb threat that was made at Stephen Decatur High School last week, was a “less skilled copycat” than what investigators are dealing with now. He used his own cellular phone.

“Most of what we are dealing with isn’t even originating from a phone line,” said McDermott. “There’s a lot more nuance to this, and it shows off how people are using the dark side of technology to threaten people and disrupt life as we know it.”

Culprits Likely Advanced

Huras and Card both agree that the culprits in this case are most likely not rookies.

“It’s probably just someone showing off their Internet Kung Fu,” said Huras. “It doesn’t take a high degree of skill to do something like this, but it would take an advanced hacker with a very thorough understanding of things like routing, and call flow to not get caught after this long.”

Card countered that although the advent of VoIP technology has made spoofing a much easier thing to do, there are other things to consider.

“The other thing people need to remember is that viruses aren’t just designed to destroy information,” said Card. “Sometimes they are created to take over a computer and create a bot-network of computers that can all be used for illegal activity. To me, this is probably just a really elaborate prank, but it could be something worse, too.”