Plan seeks school panel appointees

County executive would pick members of expanded board

Set for public hearing

Foes see opening for political games, less voice for voters

February 11, 2000|By Larry Carson | Larry Carson,SUN STAFF

As Howard County residents thrash out dozens of ideas for improving schools and the elected board that runs them, another proposal has surfaced: Allow the county executive to appoint two new members of an expanded seven-member board.

County Executive James N. Robey and several fellow Democrats love the idea, but Jane B. Schuchardt, school board vice chairwoman, and at least one Republican delegate don't. The idea is on the agenda of a public hearing scheduled for 7: 30 p.m. Tuesday at the George Howard Building in Ellicott City.

"It gives the county executive an opportunity to appoint someone from throughout Howard County" if some areas aren't represented, said Del. Frank S. Turner, a Columbia Democrat and the proposal's sponsor.

Turner hopes to amend a bill introduced by Del. Elizabeth Bobo, a fellow Columbia Democrat, and state Sen. Edward J. Kasemeyer, a Howard-Baltimore County Democrat. Their measure would enlarge the board from five to seven members and shorten their terms from six to four years. Bobo and Kasemeyer said they like Turner's idea.

"That's a fine idea," Kasemeyer said. "You would get more representation, and the [board] workload is growing."

Herman Charity, Robey's legislative liaison, said Robey likes it, too, because it would give him the chance to make sure each area of the county is represented on the board and also ensure at least one African-American member. Howard's school board has had no black members for more than a decade, although the black school enrollment is 17.6 percent. Robey has said he would like to have the power to appoint the entire board.

But Schuchardt said she's strongly opposed because appointees will be beholden to the county executive -- especially in reviewing the school budget.

"They're playing politics. I have prob- lems with that," the former teacher said.

Republican Del. Robert L. Flanagan had even sharper objections.

"That's a terrible idea. It takes the `say' away from the voters. It makes no sense to me," he said.

Turner's bill, to elect the five board members by County Council district instead of at-large, failed in a delegation vote last month.

His purpose, he said, was to correct a geographic imbalance that has produced a board with no members living east of U.S. 29, where half the county's population lives. All the proposals -- to enlarge the board, elect members by district or appoint them -- have sprung from concern about one of Maryland's premier school systems.

Publicity has highlighted a decade-long racial shift in Howard schools that has most African-American children concentrated in a handful of older schools, mostly in Columbia. These schools often have lower-than-average standardized test scores and a higher-than-average number of children from poor or immigrant families.

The concern deepened in September with the revelation that the school board had allowed dozens of Columbia parents, most of them white, to hire their own bus to move their children from Wilde Lake Middle School -- the county's most diverse -- to the new Lime Kiln Middle in Fulton, which has few blacks. Some parents complained that the way district lines are drawn and the open enrollment policy have intensified the problem.

With two school board seats available in this year's general election, an unusually high 18 aspirants filed for the jobs. And the sponsoring legislators give little weight to the school board's request last month to postpone decisions on any proposals until next year, to give members time to study the issue.

"They have their job, and we have ours," Turner said.

But a delay until next year might happen anyway, Kasemeyer said.

"We're going to go forward, but I wouldn't be surprised if that's how it all ends up," he said.

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