Teacher on school board has obstacles Schmoke choice lives outside of Baltimore

state law also a hurdle

March 15, 1996|By Michael James | Michael James,SUN STAFF Sun staff writer Jean Thompson contributed to this article.

Baltimore Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke's provocative plan to appoint the city teachers' union president to a city school board seat is facing some legal hurdles and questions from city and state officials who wonder whether the idea will work.

Chief among the obstacles is a city residency requirement that would seem to preclude Irene B. Dandridge a Howard County resident from serving on the board. Another possible snag is a state statute that prohibits anyone from serving on a board that has authority over the person's job.

Although she is the Baltimore Teachers Union president, Ms. Dandridge is a teacher by trade, creating potential for a conflict of interest. Education experts called the proposal unusual and warned that the situation could pose problems.

"One of the key issues you need to consider is the compatibility and the interest the individual brings to the position," said Nancy S. Grasmick, state schools superintendent. "One would need to ensure that a board member's personal and professional interests do not conflict with the responsibilities he or she will assume as a board member."

State lawmakers, concerned over such conflicts, passed a law known as "the incompatibility of offices doctrine," which prohibits people from serving on boards that have control over their jobs.

But Valerie V. Cloutier, an assistant attorney general and principal counsel to the state Department of Education, said yesterday that the city's charter may exclude it from this prohibition.

"Clearly if this were a county board, an employee could not be a member of the board. With Baltimore City, the law is not clear," Ms. Cloutier said.

City Council President Lawrence A. Bell III said he didn't see any problems with a union official serving on the board. But he expressed concern that Ms. Dandridge didn't live in Baltimore.

Ms. Dandridge's nomination by the mayor has to be approved by the City Council, "and I've always looked very cautiously at residency," Mr. Bell said.

"All the school board members currently serving are city residents. I'd want an explanation if we were considering one who was not," Mr. Bell said.

He added, however, that her out-of-town address wouldn't preclude Ms. Dandridge's appointment. "Residency is a major factor, but it's certainly not the only factor," he said.

To avoid conflicts of interest, Mr. Schmoke said Ms. Dandridge ++ would not be allowed to vote on salary and personnel matters. As for the residency requirement, he said he planned to discuss options with the city law department.

"We're going to talk about how we get it done, but we are going to press ahead, and I'm confident we can work it out in a way that does not violate the charter," Mr. Schmoke said. "I do think the goal makes a lot of sense. The whole idea is simply to have a teacher at the table."

The mayor said in a recent interview that a representative from the teachers' union could help relieve tensions between teachers and the school board. Ms. Dandridge said she saw benefits to the idea and she would have no trouble refraining from votes on issues that represent a conflict.

Four members of the board are serving though their four-year terms have expired, giving the mayor a chance to make changes on the nine-member panel.

"Obviously your mayor wants teachers to get more firsthand knowledge and to have them involved in actual decision-making," said Kathy Christie, a spokeswoman for the Denver-based Education Commission of the States, an independent organization of educators. "The danger is always that the union person could become [co-opted by board members] very quickly. That is a very tough spot to be in."

Pub Date: 3/15/96

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