Wake-Up Call for Elected Board of Ed

COMMENT

June 12, 1994|By MIKE BURNS

Gov. William Donald Schaefer's veto of a bill institutionalizing the 33-year-old Permanent Nominating Caucus for Harford County school board members was the right decision for the wrong reasons.

Rightly vetoed because the measure gave unwarranted authority the loosely structured caucus, whose composition and bylaws have come under repeated attack by the right and the left, and even by some of us in between.

Wrongly rejected on grounds that it dared to infringe on the imperial powers of His Excellency, the all-knowing governor. That's the kind of reasoning behind a string of Schaefer vetoes this year, a final assertion of the Sun King's absolute authority as he slides over the electoral horizon this fall.

The bill would have required the governor to select Harford County school board members from a list of candidates top-ranked by the caucus. If he rejected the first two names, the caucus would reconvene and present more nominees.

That would not have usurped much gubernatorial authority. The chief executive would still have had a choice, even though limited to candidates who had undergone careful screening and ranking by the local caucus.

As it works now, the governor looks at the caucus nominations, consults the local political power broker, and then appoints whomever he wishes. He's bound by no list.

Last year marked the fourth time that a Maryland governor passed over the Harford caucus' top nomination for a board seat. Mr. Schaefer tapped the caucus runner-up, the incumbent, Anne Sterling, who had County Executive Eileen Rehrmann's backing.

That modest slight to caucus preference might have passed with minimal grousing and controversy.

It was, however, the final twist of plot in the most heated, most widely attended Harford caucus ever held.

The education establishment (teachers' union, Parent-Teacher

Association leaders, liberal politicos, etc.) was much put out that the top-rated candidate was a conservative Christian who did not share its very distinct ideas of what should be taught in Harford County schools.

Other than that, H. Everett Smith possessed admirable credentials in education, business and community service. Based on his resume alone, he would likely have been speedily appointed by the governor.

But the liberal left howled about manipulation of the caucus, about a radical-right "stealth" candidate, about voting irregularities and unqualified organizations participating.

These same rules (and permissive procedures) existed for years without protest. It was only the victory of Mr. Smith that seemed to threaten the integrity of the venerable caucus system. While certain approved "minorities" were acceptable to the establishment, the minority views of Mr. Smith as one board member of seven were seen as too dangerous to the system.

The qualifications for organizations entitled to vote in the Permanent Nominating Caucus were tightened.

Delegates had to listen to the candidates in order to vote, balloting was more scrupulously monitored. Instead of an informal advisory group open to nearly every willing organization, the caucus was transformed into a formal nominating convention of formal groups with genuine Tax Identification Numbers!

Thus reborn, the Harford caucus sought to establish its charter and its nominating authority in state law. The PTA network gained virtual control of its operations, but the caucus remains open to any group intent on participating. The possibility of "manipulation" by any group still exists under the rules. The caucus vote remains an advisory poll.

That's why Governor Schaefer was correct in vetoing the bill, not because it would unduly compromise the actions of future governors.

It's also an overwhelming argument in favor of an elected school board for Harford County, directly responsible to voters and taxpayers.

Candidates would be judged on their abilities to serve on the school board, not as generalist politicians. We elect an official to register wills at the courthouse; we should certainly be trusted with directly choosing the people who guide the public education of our children.

Most of Harford's $175 million education budget comes from the county, not from the state. Even the state's role in school construction becomes relatively less important as counties are forced to come up with local money to meet local capital investment needs.

Ten of Maryland's 24 jurisdictions already have elected school boards, so they're no novelty. The majority of school boards in the United States are elected. Despite the fear of local politics undermining education, the Maryland list of elected school boards includes some of the best systems: Montgomery, Howard, Carroll, Prince George's.

An election would allow for the free exchange of ideas and opinions about the course of education. It would produce a school board with more representational diversity, from fiscal conservatives to educational liberals.

The county executive and County Council would still hold the power of the purse, making the board financially accountable.

Governor Schaefer may unwittingly have sounded the trumpet for change.

It's time to disband the caucus, give the boot to political patronage and let the public elect the guardians of our educational system.

Mike Burns is The Baltimore Sun's editorial writer in Harford County.

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