Silent Cal Baltimore County: School board's Disney leaves legacy of reform and secrecy.

July 01, 1996

A SCHOOL BOARD is supposed to be close to the people, but it hasn't seemed to work that way in Baltimore County for a good while. Board members have been a furtive bunch, their public meetings often a formality, their decisions on matters of substance hammered out in the comfort of a locked room. If they have had the best interests of children at heart -- which is likely -- the public has not always been aware of it because they have shared so little. They have tended to treat the public as if it either doesn't need or have a right to know what the board is up to.

His assets and contributions notwithstanding, board President Calvin Disney, who announced his resignation recently, endorsed the board's move in that unfortunate direction during the 10 years he has served on it.

He rarely offered an unrehearsed comment. He defended the recent superintendent selection process that kept the public in the dark. He said virtually nothing through the debate about a high-school girl punished for possessing pepper spray and the mismanagement of the school facilities department that has dominated headlines for months. His preferred mode of communication was the prepared statement or, rarely, a letter to the editor.

In many ways, Mr. Disney's departure is regrettable. School boards across the region suffer from a dearth of knowledge about business and finance, both of which Mr. Disney possesses. A vice president at a major contracting company, he brought expertise to construction issues -- a fact that, in the end, made him more culpable for the board's decision to approve the appointment of a principal who knew nothing about construction to head the facilities department. He also championed reforms that led to positive changes, including school-based management and magnet schools.

But the secretive style he favored seems to be growing passe. Recently, the board openly and vigorously debated changes in its discipline policy. Perhaps the old tight-lipped culture is changing as more open board members, notably Robert Dashiell, become more vocal.

Calvin Disney's school boards accomplished good things. But they forgot they owed citizens their ears and voices. Future boards must not make the same mistake.

Pub Date: 7/01/96

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