Saying Baltimore's school board is listless and unresponsive, City Council President Mary Pat Clarke plans to introduce legislation that would allow voters to elect six of its nine members.
The measure, which is expected to be introduced tomorrow, must be approved by voters to become law. In 1984, voters in Baltimore defeated a ballot question calling for an elected school board.
Ms. Clarke's proposal would restructure the Board of School Commissioners so that it had six elected and three appointed members.
Her intention is directly at odds with that of Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke, who has asked the city's ongoing Charter Revision Commission to consider making the board strictly an advisory body.
The nine-member school board is appointed by the mayor. By law, the body appoints the school superintendent and sets school policy, although as a practical matter it does so at the direction of the mayor.
"There is no one perfect way of setting up a school board," Mr. Schmoke said. "I've even suggested that we don't need a school board. A good compromise may be to convert the school board to an advisory board. Then there is no confusion who the superintendent's boss is."
Ms. Clarke, however, thinks the city needs a more activist board. She said she was convinced to push for a partially elected board after watching its handling of Mr. Schmoke's recent proposal to close schools for a week as a result of cuts in state aid.
"The board's response on that was that 'we really have not adopted a philosophy on this one way or another,' " Ms. Clarke said. "If the school board is going to be there, it ought to be there to respond to the concerns of the community."
Mr. Schmoke scuttled his school closing proposal last week, under intense pressure from state officials, community activists and the Baltimore Teachers Union.
"The council president is opposed to the way the board handled the school closing proposal," Mr. Schmoke said. "But I don't think you should let one issue drive your views of charter amendments. I tend to view this last thing as a budget issue, not an educational policy issue."
Under Ms. Clarke's charter amendment proposal, six members of the school board would be elected, one from each council district. The other three board members would be appointed by the mayor, who also would choose the president. The members of the school board would have terms coinciding with those of the mayor and council members.
Ms. Clarke's bill, co-sponsored by Councilman Anthony J. Ambridge, D-2nd, also proposes a campaign spending limit of $5,000 for school board elections. Ms. Clarke said the spending limit should free the elections from the control of entrenched political interests.
But the limits may be beyond the scope of city government.
"In general, matters of election laws and, in particular, campaign spending and finance are exclusively for the state legislature," said Jack Schwartz, chief counsel for opinions advice in the attorney general's office. Mr. Schwartz refused to comment directly on Ms. Clarke's proposal.
Mr. Schmoke said an elected school board could do damage to Baltimore by politicizing the board. He pointed out that Boston just moved from an elected to an appointed board.
"I've seen what elected politics can do to the process, and I don't want that to happen in Baltimore," he said.
Mr. Schmoke is mulling the appointment of a new school board because the terms of the current members all expired Dec. 31. Under the City Charter, the mayor has 120 days to fill the expired seats, while the current members remain in place.
Mr. Schmoke has not yet said when he will announce a new board lineup or whether any of the seven current members would be replaced. The board has two vacancies.