The politics of public interests

March 23, 1996|By Michael K. Burns

DESPITE THE solemn protestations that their only concern is the education of the community's children, the fact is that our school boards are highly political.

They may not, in the great state of Maryland, have the taxing authority of many other school districts in the United States. But these school boards are political organisms, whether directly elected by the county voters or appointed. Ten of Maryland's 24 public school systems have elected boards of education; the rest are appointed.

In Baltimore County, the school board appointed by the governor just finished its second controversial selection of a new superintendent in less than four years. It was a closed, confidential employment process by a body that presents itself as apolitical. But the widespread interest of the community should have made it an open, politically accountable process.

One side argued that the selection process was ''wired'' to confirm the interim superintendent, Anthony Marchione, without a true thorough search for outsider candidates. But instead of holding up Dr. Marchione as a benchmark for other prospects, the secretive board pretended that all candidates were equally considered. Then it swiftly produced a short, weak ''finalist'' list that left no doubt who would be picked.

Another side maintained that Dr. Marchione, a 40-year veteran of the county school system, should have been named from the start because of his competent, calming performance in a year as acting superintendent, following the abrupt ouster of the abrasive Stuart Berger last summer. Political repercussions from the secretive hiring of Dr. Berger led to new promises of an open, nationwide search. But that open-entry process seemed to somehow cast doubt on the credentials of Dr. Marchione, because he represented the status quo.

Still others argued that he was not acceptable because of his complicity in the system's failure to raise the academic and behavior standards of black children over the years.

Political interests

These are all political interests not in the pejorative sense but in the sense of a democratic representation of community views. Unfortunately, the unelected county school board acted as if isolated in a vacuum, while deciding on the official to oversee a $600 million budget and the education of more than 100,000 children.

Had they been directly elected, however, board members would have been forced to listen to and respond to differing community views in this decision. They would have been forced to open up the selection process. They would be held accountable to the citizens for their choice.

Candidates for the Baltimore County school board go through a screening process by an informal convention of education and community groups, with top nominees ranked in order. But state senators and party leaders also have a voice. The choice is finally up to the governor; William Donald Schaefer frequently ignored the Baltimore County convention's choices.

What is inescapable is that the selections by the governor are political, and the decisions the school-board members make are political. The most honest way of assuring that the political process is responsive to the public is to elect the school board directly.

Baltimore County's state legislators refused to handle this hot potato proposal while the superintendent search was under way. But open election of school-board members is ultimately the best way to assure an open selection process for a county schools superintendent, and truly open discussion of other education issues.

Michael K. Burns is a staff writer for The Sun.

Pub Date: 3/23/96

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