Elected School Board or None?

January 21, 1992

City Council President Mary Pat Clarke wants an elected school board in Baltimore. Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke is talking about abolishing the school board altogether or reducing it to an advisory role.

Neither case is persuasive. Neither change is likely to improve the schools, and an elected board has potential for making things worse.

Ms. Clarke's proposal, to be introduced today in the City Council, is actually for a mostly elected board, to be composed of one person elected from each of the city's six council districts and three to be appointed by the mayor. It may be no accident that Ms. Clarke is attempting to limit the mayor's power to appoint the entire board at a time when she and the mayor are not getting along politically. Or she may be reacting out of frustration with the board's woeful performance in the recent school-closing debate. Mayor Schmoke proposed closing schools for a week to save money, parents and teachers complained loudly, and the board refused even to say what it thought about the matter.

Elected board members, Ms. Clarke says, would be more "responsive." Actually, the record of elected boards -- most school boards in the country are elected -- is not good in large urban systems. In Boston for years, race-baiting was the favored method of winning election. In New York, regional boards are often the captive of small-time political machines or of the teachers' union.

A board with most members elected by council district would likely be dominated by parochial "pork-barrel" politics. Further, with City Hall holding budgetary control -- most elected school boards in the country have independent taxing and spending authority -- the board would have opportunity for all sorts of grandstanding to voters without having to pay the bill. These are forms of responsiveness, but certainly not what the city school system needs.

As for Mayor Schmoke making the school board advisory, we thought he already had. No better example could be provided than the school-closing issue. Similarly, the mayor took the lead in selecting Richard Hunter as school superintendent and in convincing the board not to renew Dr. Hunter's contract; and his hand was hardly invisible in the search for Dr. Hunter's replacement.

The mayor's involvement is appropriate. His office is where the primary accountability for city schools should reside. But he doesn't need to make it a one-man show.

The school board is what the mayor makes it. This mayor has made it largely an irrelevancy. Generally, Baltimore has had competent board leadership -- leadership the mayor trusted and to which he delegated a lot of day-to-day decision-making while retaining ultimate responsibility. The terms of all current board members have expired. Mayor Schmoke should appoint a board he can work with -- and then he should work with it.

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