Better Way to Pick a School Board

April 12, 1993

Anne Arundel County must find a better way to pick school board members. The annual School Board Nominating Convention process is not the farce its critics contend. Still, it has a glaring flaw, and respect for the nominating convention has plummeted to the point where participants wonder if they should even bother.

At the convention, which got under way last week, community leaders submit candidates to a fairly rigorous examination, then submit choices to the governor. Of course, the governor doesn't really make the appointment; the county executive tells him who to pick.

The convention has lost credibility because its top vote-getters have often been ignored. During his eight years as Anne Arundel's county executive, O. James Lighthizer twice snubbed the nominating convention entirely, recommending people who never even went through the process. Since then, convention delegates have insisted that their decision be honored. Last year, they tried to make County Executive Robert R. Neall stick with their pick, but he opted for the second choice.

It's easy to see why conventioneers are annoyed. Nonetheless, the convention was never supposed to be the final step in school board selections. Its function is advisory; it is a nominating convention. The group seems to have forgotten that key point.

Neither is there anything wrong with giving the final arbiter some latitude. Anne Arundel residents learned that 10 years ago, when right-wing extremists stacked the nominating convention. If then-Gov. Harry Hughes hadn't been able to skip over their choice, the county might have been stuck with an unqualified school board member. Short of moving toward an elected board, the part of the process that must be changed is who makes the final choice.

The governor is not in the best position to competently choose members for a local school board, be it in Anne Arundel, Harford or Baltimore County. He often ends up doing what the county executive privately advises, and neither officeholder gets held accountable. The governor won't lose an election based on a school board appointment, and the executive can weasel out of responsibility by saying he didn't make the decision.

The governor should be taken out of this equation. Let's work to change the law, transferring appointment authority to the executive, with County Council confirmation required, just as for all other appointees.

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