School board elections needed

Comment

November 28, 1999|By C. FRASER SMITH

A WIDENING circle of Howard County leaders support Del. Frank S. Turner's call to elect school board members by district.

Perhaps the time has come to recognize that governing bodies -- even in a very good system -- need fine tuning.

County Executive James N. Robey and the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People endorse the change advocated by Mr. Turner as do several members of the county's delegation to Annapolis.

School board members and others disagree.

Board members currently are elected countywide -- a circumstance which, proponents contend, makes it harder for the county's 15 percent African American population to elect a representative.

Taking their cue from the nation's political history, proponents of the change argue that a black candidate would have a better shot running in a smaller district. Depending upon how the districts were drawn, this would undoubtedly be true.

Diversity on the board

Diversity on the board is certainly a worthy objective.

Urgency is added to the issue by the widely held view that some school districts are suffering in terms of equipment and teaching staff. County education officials have conceded that certain decisions worked to the disadvantage of certain districts.

Would those decisions have been made had there been specific representation for the aggrieved district?

Would the harmful situation have continued if that representative had been there to serve as a watchdog?

Natalie Woodson, of the county chapter of the NAACP, contends that the lack of a black member on the board is one of those inequities.

That assertion is difficult to refute, even if one believes that the school board's members are well-motivated, honest representatives of the entire county.

Affirmative action in the society in general has been a useful device, not simply to redress discrimination in employment, but to build accountability into the system. Black elected officials in Annapolis have observed that their white colleagues would not actively adopt policies harmful to blacks.

But if a black legislator were a member of a committee, the panel's level of awareness and sensitivity would be heightened automatically. The black point of view would have a spokesperson.

No offense need be taken and, perhaps, none was intended. The call for diversity would be equally compelling if the current members had been the indisputably the soul of fairness.

Ms. Woodson argues that if Howard schools have a 16.9 percent black population, the school board should have a black member.

"We have not had a school board member elected in 15 years," she said at a meeting last week. "There is a need for diversity on the board."

In Howard, Ms. Woodson argues, there is "scapegoating of African-American students" by people concerned about lagging test scores at some schools. She said 27 percent of all students are below grade level, and about 2,500 of that roughly 10,000-member group are black.

"We need to be sure we have a school board looking at this factual data," she said. Ms. Woodson said blacks "should be looked at with a degree of sensitivity and not as a deficit to the county."

Certainly she is right. Columbia's founding father, James Rouse, subscribed to that view and, to continue his quest for a fair, equitable and strong community every effort must be made to avoid stereotyping and scapegoating. An elected representative could, in theory, give assurances that everyone's interests were being considered.

Change may be good, but it is likely to face opposition.

Sandra H. French, a current board member, worries that a superintendent candidate might be reluctant to take a job in Howard if he or she thought the board could be gone in a single election.

"What superintendent is going to come in knowing that within two years, the entire board will be fired?" she asked.

Mr. Turner tries to address that worry by proposing staggered terms: All five members would be elected by district in one year. The two receiving the most votes would serve six years, the next highest four years and the last-place finisher two years, building in some continuity.

Some-fine tuning of the Turner bill may be in order. But all those involved should be looking for ways to address all the issues in play here: equity in its broadest application and representativeness.

It will not be enough to assert that the current system is without flaws.

It is fine to argue that the county has the best education system in the state. But that will only be true when all students, all parents and all schools are taken into account, in the governing structure as well as in allocation of resources.

Ms. Woodson, Mr. Turner, Mr. Robey and others are saying the Howard system will be better if the board members represent the broadest spectrum of county residents.

C. Fraser Smith is The Sun's editorial writer in Howard County.

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