No to elected school boards

September 20, 1993

For decades, members of the Baltimore County board of education have been appointed by the governor. The system, similar to those of 13 other Maryland subdivisions, is a vestige of earlier times when Annapolis dictated much of the policy for the suburban and rural counties. In Baltimore County and most other jurisdictions, a grass-roots committee gives the governor names of candidates when a board opening occurs. Yet as critics point out, governors have ignored committee recommendations and chosen people with political connections.

No question, it's an imperfect system -- but not so imperfect as the concept of the elected board. It poses this likely scenario for Baltimore County:

A campaign ticket of north county anti-tax activists aiming to pad their wallets by cutting the school budget. A ticket of teachers union members whose key concern will be the care and feeding of the teachers union. Bids by people who know or care little about the schools but who would use the board as an entree to a political career.

If county residents think appointed board members are unaccountable now, wait until they have a crazy-quilt board answerable to sundry political agendas. The appointive system, warts and all, is at least free of such distractions.

This has become a particularly hot topic since county pols began lining up to propose legislation changing the local board to an elected one. Their main motivation seems not to be serving constituents but rather scoring political points from the controversy over the performance of the current board and School Superintendent Stuart Berger. Does anyone believe county politicians actually want to create a body that would only produce more competition for them in local races?

Their bills should meet the same fate as the late-1970s proposal that would have empowered the county executive to make school board appointments. The legislature killed it because their desire to respond to the public was outweighed by their desire to guard their turf.

Advocates of elected boards will cite the fact that nearly 80 percent of the nation's boards are picked by voters. Studies reveal, though, that they don't function any better than appointed boards. Or, for that matter, any worse. Indeed, the only time citizens seem to give much thought to their school boards is when controversy crops up.

In Baltimore County, that's been about once every 15 years. Which suggests that changing the current system isn't worth all the potential imperfections that make an elected board an unsavory prospect.

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