School board election change opposed Members criticize proposal to switch to district system

November 30, 1995|By James M. Coram | James M. Coram,SUN STAFF

Members of the Board of Education said last night that their election by district rather than at-large would politicize and weaken "the best school system in the state."

And a proposal to allow the County Council to conduct performance audits of school officials would open the school board to "micro-management" by the council, Superintendent Michael E. Hickey said.

Both proposals came from state legislators and were aired last night in a public hearing on Howard County legislation being considered by the county's General Assembly delegation. Usually, the General Assembly approves as a courtesy bills sponsored by a local delegation.

Del. Frank Turner, an east Columbia Democrat, wants school board members to be elected from council districts rather than at-large. He also wants to limit members' terms to four years. The five board members now serve staggered, six-year terms.

"There would be greater accountability to have someone elected by districts, as we do with councilmanic districts," Mr. Turner told school board members and a crowd of more than 50 people.

Election by district would help assure that members of the county's "African-American community, Chinese community and growing Spanish community" would be represented on the board, Mr. Turner said. "We need to get every group involved. This could help those communities get interested in running."

School board Chairman Susan Cook said election at-large is essential because "to do this job right, all of us must be in every school in the county. Board members must do what's best for the entire county, not their individual districts."

Ms. Cook said she feared that district elections would politicize the school board.

"Politics does not have a place in education," she said. "It will polarize the county. The welfare of our students is neither a political game nor a political trophy to be used as a steppingstone for other political ambitions."

Other board members expressed similar views. And Dr. Hickey said he was concerned about the prospect that the terms of all five members might end at the same time.

Staggered terms provide "continuity, diversity and perspective, all critical qualities," he said. "The final year, when [board members would be] lame ducks, would be particularly chaotic," he said.

Later, Del. Robert L. Flanagan of Ellicott City and Sen. Martin G. Madden of Clarksville asked Dr. Hickey why he and the school board opposed Mr. Flanagan's audit bill, which would allow the County Council, or perhaps the county executive, to audit the school board any way they wanted to.

"I am concerned about a broad-brush-stroke approach that might allow micro-management of the school system," Dr. Hickey said.

"I have no problem with a [financial] audit," Dr. Hickey said. He asked at the delegation to defer to a statewide audit bill being drafted by House Speaker Casper R. Taylor Jr.

That bill might not pass, Mr. Madden said. And, because the County Council is responsible for deciding what to fund in the school board budget, council members "should have all the tools they need to see that the money is effectively spent," he said.

Mr. Flanagan said that although Howard County children "on average are the brightest and best-motivated in the state," these are "austere times." He said his bill would provide a "tool to bring information to the public and create dialogue about how to get the best education for the educational dollar."

The delegation will conduct another hearing on local legislation Dec. 13 in the county office building.

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