School board districts are proposed

Del. Turner wants members elected from specific areas

`It's a bad idea'

Issues of politics, quality of candidates, accountability arise

October 06, 1999|By Larry Carson | Larry Carson,SUN STAFF

Howard County's five school board members are elected countywide, but none lives in the densely populated area east of U.S. 29.

That's why east Columbia Del. Frank S. Turner, a Democrat, wants board members elected by district, just as County Council members are. He said he plans to introduce legislation in the next General Assembly session, which begins in January, to make the change.

"You get better representation and accountability when school board members are elected by district," he said. "You also get [more] people who want to run for school board who don't want to run countywide."

With district election, "we'll see some much more interesting candidates," Turner said.

Four of the five County Council members and County Executive James N. Robey also support the idea, though Robey would rather appoint board members himself, he said. Councilwoman Mary C. Lorsung, a west Columbia Democrat, had no firm position.

Board members now are elected to staggered six-year terms, with one or two board seats up for election every two years. Current board members strongly oppose Turner's idea.

Though three live in the lightly populated western county and the other two in west Columbia, they say residency doesn't dictate interest or the lack of it.

"It's a bad idea," Chairwoman Karen B. Campbell said about Turner's proposal. "Districts would tend to politicize, because one would feel compelled to address the issues of the people who vote for you. It enhances the `us' vs. `them' scenario. I think we need to take a special interest in all the students."

Jane B. Schuchardt, a board member who lives in Columbia, just west of U.S. 29, said: "I see politics starting to play a major role in the school board."

With controversy swirling over how to address the poor image of some older schools shunned by some parents and crowding at others, she believes the board election bill is "going to become a very political issue."

Sandra H. French, another board member, agreed and criticized Turner for making his proposal "without consulting us." She also said that district elections of board members could lead to a fractured, parochial board.

"When you're too narrow, too focused in on `my district, my schools,' " she said, it's not good. "Howard County's way is the most challenging for a board member, but it's the best."

Board Vice Chairman Stephen C. Bounds agreed. Electing board members by councilmanic districts, he said, could lead to unhealthy political alliances with ticket mates. "I really strongly oppose it."

The two seats held by Bounds and Campbell will be up for grabs next year.

Turner introduced a similar bill in 1996 that received only his vote, but this time he's got enough support among county delegates to win approval -- at least from the House members, he said. Two co-sponsors include Republican Del. Donald E. Murphy, who represents parts of Baltimore and Howard counties, and delegation Chairman Shane Pendergrass, a fellow Democrat.

The challenge may be in getting required support from two of the county's three state senators.

"We have the No. 1 school system in the state -- the envy of the other counties. When you have a system that's working well, I'm somewhat reluctant to tinker with the formula," said state Sen. Martin G. Madden, a Republican and Senate majority leader. Madden said he is willing to listen, however.

Sen. Edward J. Kasemeyer, a Democrat, said, "My initial reaction is, I don't like it. Education has to be looked at countywide."

But Pendergrass said her opinion has changed since 1996.

"I've come to think that maybe we will be better served having a [local] representative as we do on the council. People seem happy to know who their representative is," she said.

In the region, Carroll, Prince George's and Montgomery counties also elect school board members. The nine members in Prince George's run by district, while Carroll's five and Montgomery's seven are elected countywide. Board members in Baltimore, Harford and Anne Arundel counties are appointed.

Pub Date: 10/06/99

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