School board election plan appears dead

Proposal in county would have members elected by district

Key Senate support lacking

But bill has won backing of NAACP, local teachers union

November 21, 1999|By Larry Carson | Larry Carson,SUN STAFF

Despite growing support from some quarters, Del. Frank S. Turner's proposal to elect Howard County school board members by district is going nowhere.

Howard's state senators oppose the change and their support is crucial, which Turner, an east Columbia Democrat, concedes.

"Probably the senators will stay united" in opposition, Turner said, adding that "sometimes it's more important to raise the level of debate than it is to get a bill."

Yet the bill has gained support recently from most of Columbia's village boards and from the county chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. And unlike his first attempt to pass the bill three years ago, Turner has a majority of delegates on his side, along with most County Council members and County Executive James N. Robey, a Democrat.

Republican state Sens. Martin G. Madden and Christopher J. McCabe oppose the bill after listening to hours of debate at a public hearing Thursday night in Ellicott City. Sen. Edward J. Kasemeyer, a Democrat representing Baltimore and Howard counties, also has expressed opposition. Without support from a majority of the county's senators, the bill would die.

Robey supports the bill, he said, although he would rather have the power to appoint school board members.

"I would have more diversity in terms of race and professional background. Voters know least about school board candidates," he said, adding that as with the County Council, "all areas of the county need to be represented in such an important position."

Seven of Columbia's 10 village boards also support Turner's bill, as does the Howard County Education Association, teachers union President Joe Staub testified. The bill is strongly opposed by school board members and others, including two former board members.

No school board members live east of U.S. 29, where half the county's population lives, Natalie Woodson, chairwoman of the NAACP Education Committee testified. No African-Americans have been elected to the all-white board in 15 years.

Woodson said she is worriedabout the "scapegoating" of black students -- who she said represent a small minority of poorly performing children -- for problem schools.

"There is a need for diversity on the board," she said, adding that the 16.9 percent of the school population that is black should "be looked at with a degree of sensitivity and not as a deficit to the county."

Turner's bill would make all five school board seats available in the 2002 election. The top two vote-getters from among all district candidates would receive six-year terms, the next two four-year terms, and the last a two-year term. Now, members run countywide for their seats, but serve staggered terms to maintain board continuity. They strongly oppose any change, arguing it would produce partisan bickering, vote trading and divisions among sections of the county.

"I'm still leaning against the bill," said Madden, the Senate minority leader. He noted testimony by school board member Sandra H. French that it would be much harder for the board to hire a superintendent if candidates know the whole board could be replaced in 2002. Superintendent Michael E. Hickey is to retire in June after 16 years in the job.

Although he is worried more about regional bickering if the board goes to a district election system, McCabe said his bottom line remains the same as Madden's.

"I still think that the current system is better suited to maintain a unified school system," he said.

He is less impressed with French's point about hiring a superintendent, he said, agreeing with Democratic Del. Elizabeth Bobo that any superintendent candidate must expect and be able to handle controversy.

In answer to a question from Bobo, French said she thought problems in older schools stem partly from children coming to those schools after their families have moved from Baltimore. Those children, she said, are faced with a new cultural situation.

"Behaviors needed for survival [in Baltimore] are not needed, or permissible here," she said.

French, who testified that she received 50,000 votes in 1992 -- more than President Clinton received in Howard that year -- noted that the county charter calls for the school board to increase from five to seven members once enrollment reaches 50,000. With enrollment just 7,000 shy of that total, French said members are stretched thin as the workload increases.

Although he doesn't expect his bill to succeed this year, Turner said it has been much better received than when he introduced it three years ago. Then, he was its only supporter.

"I think it's made tremendous strides. Now there's certainly an awareness that didn't exist four years ago," he said, noting that he is open to any amendments that could garner the bill the required support from county senators. With five of the eight county delegates as sponsors, the bill would easily succeed in the House.

One of two black elected officials in the county, Turner agreed that "there ought to be diversity on the school board."

The legislators will discuss and possibly vote on the 12 Howard County bills Dec. 1. A second meeting might be held Dec. 8. The General Assembly convenes Jan. 12.

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