School board changes debated

Lawmakers hear range of public opinion

February 16, 2000|By Larry Carson | Larry Carson,SUN STAFF

After listening to 17 residents testify last night about a legislative proposal to change the makeup of the Howard County school board, one thing was clear to Del. Elizabeth Bobo, a Columbia Democrat.

"There are almost as many opinions as there were people," Bobo said.

Del. Frank S. Turner is proposing to expand the board to seven elected members from five and to shorten their terms from six years to four.

Last night's hearing on Turner's bill was sponsored by the county's state legislative delegation, which will vote on the measure next week.

FOR THE RECORD - In an article in the Howard County edition of The Sun yesterday about a public hearing on proposed changes to the Howard County school board, the Howard chapter of the National Political Congress of Black Women, founded by Columbia resident Ethel Hill, was misidentified. The Sun regrets the error.

At the hearing, some residents wanted the five-member board to be expanded to seven members. Others said five or nine.

Some called for four-year terms for board members instead of six; others for their election by County Council district or to be appointed.

Others said that appointing two board members and electing five would create division.

Some wanted the issue to be studied further or opted for the status quo.

"I'm not sure we're ready to make changes. Maybe we need to wait awhile," said Pricilla Hart, of Columbia.

"An elected board is a crapshoot. The only way to get a board that mirrors the community it serves is to be appointed," said Ethel Hill of Columbia, a founder of the National Policy Council of Black Women.

Hill said the board is too far removed from the concerns of people in older residential areas such as her Wilde Lake neighborhood.

But W. W. Norton of Laurel pooh-poohed fixing what "ain't broke."

" If people won't get out and vote, that's their problem," he said about complaints that no board member is from the eastern part of the county.

The debate over how -- and whether -- to change the elected school board began months ago with Turner's proposal to have the board elected by council district instead of countywide.

Turner, a Democrat, said the board needs a better geographic balance because no members live east of U.S. 29, where half the county's population is. But last month, the 11-member delegation rejected his proposed bill to have the board elected by council district.

Bobo and Sen. Edward J. Kasemeyer of Elkridge, a Democrat, proposed expanding the board to seven members and shortening their terms from six years to four years.

Recently, Turner proposed having the other two members appointed by County Executive James N. Robey.

Dwight Clark, vice president of the county Chamber of Commerce, testified that seven would make for "better representation of all areas and all groups in the county."

Virginia Charles of Laurel, a school board candidate, said she opposes appointing members but favors expanding the board to seven and cutting terms to four years.

"The population has increased dramatically," Charles said, adding that "being a board member is a very exhaustive job."

Other residents disputed that assessment and pointed to the 18 candidates for the board this election year.

Susan Buswell served on the board when it was an appointed body and when it became an elected one. She said last night that no "structural change" will solve the county's education problems. They're too complex for an easy political solution, she said.

The ideas about changing the board come as Howard countians are debating what to do about some unsettling changes in their school system. For years, Howard students scored highest on state standardized tests but this year fell to second place behind Kent County.

And years of gradual changes have concentrated most of the county's African-American students in a small group of older schools, mostly in Columbia. These schools often have lower-than-average test scores and higher-than-average poverty rates.

Mary Kay Sigaty, who is serving on a leadership committee appointed by Robey and school Superintendent Michael E. Hickey to study the problems, favored shortening the terms to four years, but opposed appointing two more members.

"People feel the school board isn't responsive. Having a shorter term should reduce that perception," she said.

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