Proposed city school board creates stir Community groups collecting names for powerful panel

'Renewed activism'

Accord, still not final, would grant members wide authority

December 09, 1996|By Jean Thompson | Jean Thompson,SUN STAFF

The scramble has begun for positions on the powerful new school board that would be created by Baltimore's multimillion-dollar school settlement.

Never mind that the city-state agreement is under siege by opponents across the state. Never mind that the deal still needs the General Assembly's approval by spring. Or that a search committee hasn't been chosen.

Labor, business, community and nonprofit groups are abuzz: The Nov. 26 agreement creating the new board allows them to submit nominations, one of many changes to come in the way this public body is chosen.

Community groups aren't waiting for the details to be ironed out.

They are taking names and calculating influence, creating a stir about voluntary school board service that hasn't been generated in Baltimore in recent years.

"It's great -- we need a real renewed activism at the community level," said Joan Roache, executive director of the Maryland Education Coalition, which monitors school policy and spending and will be watching as Baltimore reorganizes its school government. "They need to be ready to have input."

The buzz centers on the new authority that would be granted to the board through the settlement.

The school board would have power to spend its budget without going through red tape downtown; the authority to hire and fire the chief executive officer who will replace the school superintendent; and direct responsibility for reforms in city schools.

The settlement also spells out standards for membership: The school board must have at least one parent, one resident familiar with issues in special education, three who have education expertise, and four who have been high-level managers with a large business or nonprofit or governmental agency.

Optimists see the flurry of interest as a harbinger, a sign of the fresh start envisioned for Baltimore schools by the architects of the legal agreement.

Cynics forecast attempts to grab power by interest groups that would have a chance to control the school system's budget, which was $653 million this year and would be improved by $254 million over five years.

"All kinds of red flags went up for us," said Linda Prudente, spokeswoman for the Baltimore Teachers Union. "It's almost scary how much power the new school board is going to have, with its new controls over school spending and bargaining."

Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke pledged a year ago to create a board position for a teachers union representative. Last month's legal settlement overtook that arrangement, but teachers are eyeing the four education-related seats.

Union leaders are taking names of potential nominees who are teacher-friendly, Prudente said -- "educators and business people who have experience with bargaining."

They are concerned because contracts with teachers, principals, aides, cafeteria workers, school police and clerical employees will expire June 30 -- mere weeks after the General Assembly's deadline to create and fund the new school government.

Across the city, other groups interested in education are canvassing prominent city figures, some of whom are jockeying for one of the nine school board seats. Familiar figures in education say the question they're asked around town these days is: "Do you want to be on the board?"

Whether they do, their names are being bandied about: Robert C. Embry, president of the Abell Foundation; Jerry Baum, soon-to-retire founding director of the nonprofit Fund for Educational Excellence; and state school board member Walter Sondheim Jr., a former city board president (who says he will decline nominations).

Some current school board members would serve again if asked, including President Arnita Hicks McArthur, who teaches English at Baltimore City Community College; and Lloyd Bowser, a retired federal personnel manager who has championed vocational-education programs.

Keith Bradford, one of the parents whose lawsuit against the state resulted in the settlement, says he will throw his hat in the ring.

"I want to be involved for my children over the long haul," said Bradford, who sued because he was frustrated over the lack of workbooks and other materials at his son's school.

Parents' groups have complained that only one board seat is designated for them. Officials say this is not meant as a limit, but as a minimum, to ensure that consumers of public education influence policy that affects their children.

Christopher Cross, president of the state school board, hopes groups will nominate cross-over candidates: parents who also have business experience, for example.

The state board will screen the candidates proposed by community groups and present a list of finalists to the mayor and governor.

Requiring categories of experience for school board membership is apparently unique in the country. Spokesmen at the National School Boards Association and other groups say they have never heard of a city putting standards in writing to define the ideal board members.

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