Docca Withdrew from Running for School Board President Amid Fallout from Comment

Board elects Michael Durso to third consecutive term as president


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School board member Judy Docca

Via Montgomery County Board of Education

School board President Michael Durso will hold on to his board leadership post for another year, his colleagues decided Tuesday, as they opted against elevating vice president Judy Docca to the role.

After election to his third consecutive term as president, Durso referenced the fallout over Docca’s use of the word “retarded” in a self-deprecating remark at a public meeting in July. The board president complimented Docca for her “long and honorable” history with the school system and said her reputation shouldn’t be tarnished by an isolated comment.

“I think I speak for our colleagues that we don’t join that chorus of criticism of you,” Durso said.

“Thank you, Mr. Durso. That means a lot to me,” Docca replied.

Durso said generally, the school board appoints the outgoing vice president as the incoming president when it elects new officers. However, Docca contacted board members before Tuesday’s meeting to say she was not pursuing the presidency.

In a phone interview Wednesday, Docca said she had been interested in the leadership role, but took herself out of the running because of the controversy over her July remark.

In recent weeks, her fellow school board members have been criticized because they didn’t speak up at the time Docca used the offensive term. Docca said she knew her colleagues would continue to face repercussions if they installed her as president.

“I just didn’t want them to be badgered, and I was sure that was what was going to happen,” she said.

Durso noted that Docca in November issued a public apology for using the term “retarded,” a word considered disparaging to people with intellectual disabilities. Parents and disability advocates in Montgomery County have chastised Docca, both for making the remark and for waiting months to apologize.

She used the term July 6 while talking about how quickly incoming student board member Matt Post was able to pick up new information.

“We got new material, and he was able to dissect it right away and ask really pertinent questions about what we were being presented. Made me look really, mmm, retarded,” she said at the time.

Docca said she would’ve addressed the situation immediately if anyone had brought it to her attention.

“I’ve apologized for the use of the word, which was very common when I was coming up. I’m very old, and it just really slipped out,” said Docca, 78, adding that she thinks her apology “should be the end of it.”

“Mentally retarded” used to be a clinical term, but is no longer considered an acceptable term. In 2010, then-President Barack Obama signed legislation that required the federal government to use the term “intellectual disability” instead.

Lyda Astrove, a disability and special education advocate, on Wednesday called Docca’s apology “wholly unsatisfactory” because it was directed to MCPS staff members and her colleagues.

“She didn’t apologize for the hurt she caused children and families,” said Astrove of Rockville, adding that Docca should step down from the school board.

Docca is running for her fourth term as a board member. She said she’s been interested for some time in serving as president, but health issues have prevented her from taking on the role. This year, she felt well enough to dedicate the time required for the post, she said. 

If she wins re-election, Docca said she’d like to become president.

“There are many things we want to do well, and I’d like to be able to represent that to people because I’m very proud of the work the school system has done,” she said.

During Tuesday’s meeting, longtime education advocate Arthur Williams said he felt the board caved to exterior pressure by passing over Docca for the leadership post.

“To allow pressure from the outside to influence the situation, speaking for myself, I’m just a little disappointed,” he said. “I feel she deserved an opportunity to be president. She’s demonstrated that she’s qualified.”

Six board members voted for Durso as president, while board member Jill Ortman-Fouse got two votes: one from herself and one from board member Rebecca Smondrowski.

Ortman-Fouse was also up for contention as the board was picking its next vice president. The first round of voting resulted in a 4-4 tie between Ortman-Fouse and board member Shebra Evans. The second time around, Ortman-Fouse gave her vote to Evans, who captured the five-vote majority needed to win the vice president position.

“I have to vote consistent with my belief system, which is that both women and people of color are tremendously underrepresented in positions of power,” Ortman-Fouse explained after the decision, going on to allude to the fact that Evans, like Docca, is black. “I appreciate Dr. Docca’s service … and I’m sad that this is the way it broke out for you. … It’s unfortunate when we can’t support women and women of color, so I was happy to lend my support, when I saw how the votes broke out, for Ms. Evans.”

Docca said she was confident Evans would do a wonderful job as vice president.

“You have lots and lots of talent,” she said.

Bethany Rodgers can be reached at bethany.rodgers@bethesdamagazine.com.

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