The compelling argument for elected school boards Baltimore County is the last straw

Michael K. Burns

June 24, 1993|By Michael K. Burns

THE case for publicly elected, publicly accountable school boards in Maryland becomes more compelling with each new report of arrogance and insensitivity of appointed members and the officials they hire.

Of the state's 24 school systems, only 10 have elected members -- representatives who must respond to community concerns and needs.

The mayor of Baltimore appoints the city board; the governor names board members for the other 13 counties -- after consulting with his political cronies.

Those appointed members remain smugly insulated from the decisions they impose on parents, taxpayers and the children in their school systems.

They are not responsible to the county government, they are not responsible to the state Board of Education (which is also appointed by the governor), and they are not responsible to the state legislature.

Some counties have public nominating conventions to interview and grade citizens who want to serve on the school board. But the careful nominations of those public meetings are easily subverted by political bosses who have the governor's ear.

These boards of education may act without much more than pro forma gestures toward taxpayers whose money they dispense and whose children's lives they affect. There is no recourse; statewide election of the governor every four years conveniently dilutes that community-based protest of local board actions.

At their public meetings, the appointed school boards cram the agendas with solicitous, jargon-laden reports from their top hirelings and gushy awards to their admirers. Community concerns on education are set for the end of the meeting, when caring parents should be at home; dissent is barely tolerated by the yawning, impatient board members.

Nowhere is that mean-spirited hauteur carried to extreme as in Baltimore County, where the imperious board president, Rosalie Hellman, refuses to hear from the public.

After listening for hours last week to obsequious presentations by minions of her protege, Superintendent Stuart Berger, she refused to let concerned parents speak about fundamental changes in special education dictated by the board without public consultation.

Adjourning the meeting, she fled to the protection of her private palace guards.

"Can you have a dialogue with 800 people?" she asked with disdain, as if the ungrateful public should silently accede to her commands.

Ms. Hellman, whose appointment was pushed by Lt. Gov. Melvin Steinberg, the would-be governor, can only be removed by the governor. And her superintendent can only be removed by the non-elected board.

The arrogance of Dr. Berger toward the public reflects the board's disdain. The superintendent repeatedly refuses to meet with parents or to explain his autocratic edicts. He admits to minor "communications" problems, but declares he will never respond to public needs or sentiments: What sheer impertinence for the public to criticize him or his board!

Roger Hayden, the county executive, last night held a meeting to relieve tensions and discuss "communications" issues, but it is substance -- not style -- that is the problem with the appointed board and its hired hand.

The situation is little better in Baltimore, where the mayor is directly accountable for his school board. But that board quietly installed controversial, commercial-saturated Channel One TV in secondary schools without any public discussion, and it dumped a finished redistricting plan on unsuspecting parents.

Anne Arundel parents cannot get that appointed school board to discuss serious allegations of child abuse by teachers. Two board members were physically threatened over the issue of teacher pay, a deplorable action that nonetheless exposes the extreme frustration with an insulated, unresponsive public body.

If gubernatorial appointments truly reflected community diversity, free exchange of opinions might naturally occur and the fortress mentality of the board might crumble.

But gestures toward board diversity are limited to race and, sometimes, sex. Let a public convention select a candidate with views different from the dominant political power, as a religious conservative in Harford County, or with an uncomfortable profession, as a teacher in Cecil County, and the politicians rush to overturn the popular preferences.

Despite the warnings about politics in education, at least an elected board must reflect community concerns. Voter choices for the school board often prove more effective, responsive and informed.

When the state paid the lion's share of school budgets, the governor's appointment system may have been valid; it also saved counties from the election expense.

Today, however, with localities paying for 60 percent or more of their school budgets, the time has come to make school policy-makers, and their hired administrators, responsible to their communities.

It won't be just parents and teachers voting on these officials, but all residents and taxpayers of the county.

And county government will still hold the budget purse strings.

Michael K. Burns writes editorials for The Sun and The Evening Sun.

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