Picking a school board: a dispute that won't die


January 07, 1996|By Elise Armacost

THE SCHOOL BOARD selection process, like 2 a.m. liquor licenses in Annapolis and pension reform, is one of those issues that never go away in Anne Arundel County, no matter how tired of them we get.

Politicians, parents and civic leaders have been arguing the merits of appointed versus elected school boards since brontosaurus roamed the earth, or so it seems. A lot of people have come to believe that changing the way board members are chosen is a magic key to better education. It isn't. But that won't stop them from arguing some more, as Anne Arundel state lawmakers -- who introduced four school board selection bills last year, only to watch them all fail -- this month take the matter to the General Assembly once again.

The controversy promises to drag on ad nauseam. No one agrees how to pick these seven volunteers. I've lost track of how many different proposals are floating around, but the most widely touted ones are as follows:

Five options

* Option 1: Keep everything the way it is, i.e, a nominating convention of civic leaders sends its top choices to the governor, who doesn't have to use the convention's recommendations if he doesn't want to, and seven times in the past 12 years hasn't. This has angered convention supporters, who subsequently devised Option 2.

* Option 2: Pass a law forcing the governor to appoint members from among the convention's top choices.

* Option 3: Change to an elected school board.

* Option 4: Let the county executive appoint the board, subject to majority confirmation by the County Council.

* Option 5: Let the council appoint a seven-member nominating convention whose top two choices would be sent to the executive, who would select one of them and send it to the council for approval. As you might expect, the council came up with this one.

Of these alternatives, Options 2 and 3 appear to be the most popular. That's too bad, because they are the stupidest of the five.

Option 2 -- binding the governor to the convention's choices -- is downright ridiculous. Essentially, it would hand power to appoint the most important public board in the county to a group of unelected civic leaders accountable to no one.

Whom are parents supposed to hold responsible for the appointment of poor board members? Not the governor; he'll be able to say quite truthfully that his hands were tied. Not members of the convention; since they aren't elected, they have nothing to fear from anyone.

Del. John Leopold, R-Pasadena, a supporter of this measure (along with delegates Michael Busch, D-Annapolis, and Michael Burns, R-Glen Burnie, and state Sen. John Astle, D-Annapolis) argues that "civic groups have been making decisions affecting a broader public for centuries." He's right, in that influential groups such as the Sierra Club or Marylanders Against Handgun Abuse affect public policy through lobbying.

But that's not what Option 2 entails. It gives a few private citizens control over a public board. Parents who feel the school board lacks accountability now ought to be hounding their state representatives to run from this idea as if from the plague.

Likewise, accountability doesn't exist with Option 3, elected boards, though few seem to realize it. Most disgruntled parents want board members directly answerable to taxpayers and figure this is the way. And it would be if, like many other states, Maryland gave local boards of education the power to levy a school tax.

But it doesn't, and it won't. Without taxing authority, an elected board is pointless; candidates will promise anything and then blame the executive and council for not giving them enough money. This happens in nearby counties with elected boards.

Absent taxing authority, the most sensible way to pick school board members is to let the executive appoint them. He's far closer to local school needs than the governor. Education accounts for more than half of his budget. He runs on an education platform every four years, only to wind up with limited power to make good on his promises. Let him pick the school board, as he does other important panels, and hold him accountable for its successes and failures.

Solving school problems

Of course, the public schools will not change overnight no matter what option lawmakers choose. The problems Anne Arundel schools face -- not enough money, burgeoning class sizes, discipline problems -- also exist in neighboring school districts that elect boards or have the executive appoint them. Solving these problems involves difficult decisions about how much taxpayers are willing to pay for public education, perhaps at the expense of other services. At most, the right selection process provides accountability and qualified board members. That's one step toward a better school system. But it's not the only one, nor nearly as important as it has been cracked up to be.

Elise Armacost is The Sun's editorial writer in Anne Arundel County.

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