Baltimore County School Board Cools Elected-Board Drive

September 26, 1993|By PATRICK ERCOLANO | PATRICK ERCOLANO,Patrick Ercolano is an editorial writer for the Baltimore Sun.

Baltimore County's besieged Board of Education bought itself

some time the other night.

At its public meeting last Tuesday night in Cockeysville, the board let out a collective "Whoops." It conceded it had goofed when, five days earlier, it had dismissed a negative report by a board-created task force that investigated the demotions of 40 school system administrators and the mainstreaming of special education students.

Specifically, the board said it would at least reconsider its opposition to the task force recommendation that the school system hire ombudsmen to handle public complaints.

Board president Alan Leberknight's brief announcement at the start of the meeting brought a sprinkle of applause from some of the 100-odd people in the audience.

More important was the impact of this minor concession on people who weren't even at the meeting: It has cooled down county legislators who have threatened to litter Annapolis next winter with bills changing the current system of a school board appointed by the governor to one in which the public would elect the board.

Members of the county delegation say they're now satisfied the school board will take steps to reverse its previous indifference to the public. So the lawmakers will back off. For now.

But their implicit warning to the board hangs in the air: Mess up again, folks, and we'll be dusting off our elected-board bills quicker than you can say "political opportunism." (After all, 1994 is an election year.)

Baltimore County's appointed school board is, in fact, anomalous among boards nationwide. According to the National School Boards Association (NSBA) in Alexandria, Va., 95 percent of the 15,350 school boards in the United States are elected.

Much of Maryland also runs counter to the national norm. Of the state's 24 subdivisions, only 10 -- less than 40 percent -- have elected boards. The rest are appointed by the governor, except in Baltimore, where the mayor names school board members.

But even the elected panels in Maryland are unusual in that they all lack independent taxing authority, unlike the vast majority of local boards in the United States.

The absurdity of a board that can create a huge school budget without taking any direct responsibility was illustrated by events last winter in Baltimore County. The school board approved pay raises for teachers. Then, in the name of fiscal sanity, the elected leaders of the county government that had just laid off hundreds of municipal employees denied the raises. They looked like bad guys. Board members, though, could claim to be heroes for trying to boost the teachers' salaries.

People on either side of the appointed-vs.-elected debate can make their cases all day long. And both sides tend to offer strong arguments.

Those favoring elected boards cite the democratic tradition of the direct vote. They say that, if the policies of a school board or the staff it hires prove unpopular, the board members should be subject to the wrath of the electorate. That's how you keep a board accountable.

Backers of appointed boards cite the advantages of a judiciary-like body removed from the demands of political campaigns. They also fret about elections in which special interest groups would run tickets in attempts to take control of school boards.

Suppose, for example, Baltimore County has a board election next year. Potential tickets could be mounted by north county anti-taxers, the teachers union and even the Lyndon LaRouche supporters who have been showing up at school meetings with fliers labeling controversial School Superintendent Stuart Berger "Satan's helper." None of these groups would be expected to have the best interests of the schools and the students at heart.

"I think democracy has a way of remedying that kind of problem, though," says Jeremiah Floyd, the NSBA's associate executive director and a former member of Montgomery County's elected school board.

"Let's say there are worries about unsavory candidates. Then other parties would have to work that much harder to expose them. Democracy has its flaws, but this is our system. I like to paraphrase what Thomas Jefferson said about this sort of thing: Just because the people might be making foolish decisions doesn't mean you take away their power to make decisions. You just try to inform them better."

While Mr. Floyd says he supports the idea of elected boards -- "and you're talking to a guy who once lost a school board election!" -- he points out that the NSBA endorses neither the elected nor appointed format, "since we have to work with both kinds."

The Annapolis-based Maryland Association of Boards of Education (MABE) maintains the same stance, says deputy executive director Judith Ricker.

Yet Ms. Ricker seems unimpressed with contentions that elected boards are more accountable to the public than appointed panels, or that the switch from an appointed to an elected board actually produces substantial change.

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