Change eyed for school board picks

Opening procedure means more candidates, more accountability, leaders say

April 28, 1999|By Kris Antonelli | Kris Antonelli,SUN STAFF

The Anne Arundel County School Board Nominating Convention -- long criticized as a convoluted process that keeps board members from feeling accountable to the public -- is considering changes that could open board seats to more candidates.

The way it is set up now, delegates to the convention must be chosen by a community organization such as a homeowners association, neighborhood association or a PTA. The size of the organization determines how many delegates it may send. Those delegates then attend convention hearings, question the candidates and vote on them at a final hearing at Glen Burnie High School on May 5.

This year, nine candidates are hoping to be chosen to fill Thomas Florestano's seat. More than 200 delegates from 87 county organizations have registered to vote.

The names of the top two vote-getters will be sent to the governor, who will make the final pick.

Convention leaders have proposed cutting out the community organizations and allowing anyone 18 or older who attends one of three hearings to vote.

They also want to let anyone nominate himself or herself as a school board candidate, again not relying on a community group. Convention leaders believe that since they are proposing to cut out the nominating procedure for delegates, they should do the same for candidates and allow any adult who is a county resident to run for a school board position.

"We know the process can exclude some people, and we want to open it up to everyone," said Mary Alice Gehrdef, a spokeswoman for the convention.

Residents who want an elected school board have criticized the nominating convention process for years. They want to see candidates raise money and campaign, like County Council and county executive candidates. Richard Zipper, who formed Citizens for an Elected School Board, says direct elections will force board members to listen to parents and be more accountable.

Two of the county's largest community associations, the Greater Crofton Council and the Greater Severna Park Council, as well as the County Council of PTAs met with state legislators this year to ask them to endorse the idea of an elected board.

Legislators have been divided over the issue for years and would not agree to an endorsement. Many say members of an elected board without taxing authority would not be any more accountable than those chosen under the current process. Zipper said he will continue to lobby for an elected board, adding that he does not believe the convention's proposed changes will be approved by convention delegates.

"Many of those going to the convention as delegates are already committed to candidates," he said. "So opening the process up to more people who may not support their candidates is not in their best interests."

Gehrdef said convention delegates voted against similar proposed changes last year.

Only those committed to a candidate attend the nominating convention, Zipper said, and the governor doesn't always pick the top vote-getter.

Because board members are appointed by the governor, Zipper said, they have nothing to fear from unhappy constituents. And the process seems to give board members a license to battle with county executives and County Council members responsible for funding the school system.

It is usually the elected officials who lose in these fights. Last year, for example, former County Executive John G. Gary accused the board of reckless spending and budget padding. He lost the November election to Janet S. Owens, who promised to make schools her top priority.

"Why not make it an elected board?" Zipper said. "It takes out the whole appointment process and makes them directly accountable for the people they serve. The key central issue is that this should be a government for the people and by the people. Why shouldn't that principle apply to an organization that has a tremendous impact on people's lives?"

Republican Del. John R. Leopold, who supported legislation two years ago that would have let county voters choose how to pick school board candidates, said an elected board is not the answer. County legislators voted down his proposal in committee. Elected school boards cannot impose taxes, Leopold said -- only county councils may do that. "There is an underlying sense of alienation and lack of responsiveness, and there is a sense that those in power are not listening to Mr. and Mrs. Homeowner. So the thought is if they are elected, they will listen more. But that isn't necessarily the case."

Leopold supports the convention process, but he says the county executive, not the governor, should make the final choice.

"Anything they can do to open it up to more people is great," he said. "The convention process has served a useful purpose in putting candidates through the caldron of fire and to be questioned."

The final hearing will be held at 7 p.m. today at Northeast High School. Check-in for delegates begins at 6: 15 p.m. Last-minute delegates may register by calling 410-965-9721.

The 1999 board candidates are: Deborah A. Conklin of Pasadena, Edwin F. Dosek of Crofton, Torrey Christian Jacobsen Jr. of Crofton, Cynthia Patrice Johnston of Crofton, Mark McKechnie of Arnold, Janet Rose Pogar of Glen Burnie, Anthony J. Spencer of Annapolis, Carol W. Stott of Arnold and Cindy Thompson of Glen Burnie.

Pub Date: 4/28/99

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