Lawmakers drop bill to alter school board

Delegation's move means issue won't be resolved until at least next year

February 24, 2000|By Larry Carson | Larry Carson,SUN STAFF

Puzzled by the wide variety of opinions on how best to change the Howard County school board, state legislators withdrew a bill yesterday that would have expanded the panel and cut the length of members' terms, leaving the issue until next year.

The school board will create a committee to study the issue, board Vice Chairman Jane B. Schuchardt said. Though the group has not been formed, she said, the committee will include two state legislators -- a senator and a delegate -- in accordance with a board vote last month. The committee is to report in May, and a public hearing is to be held by the end of the school year in June.

Del. Elizabeth Bobo, a Columbia Democrat who co-sponsored the bill with state Sen. Edward J. Kasemeyer, a Democrat representing areas of Baltimore and Howard counties, said at a delegation meeting in Annapolis yesterday that so many different opinions on how best to change the five-member elected board were offered at a Feb. 15 public hearing that no consensus has emerged.

But, Bobo said, "I'm absolutely convinced there are problems with equity, district lines and open enrollment." She added that in re cent visits to the 18 county schools that serve her district, she was told that board members are rarely seen at schools.

"When so many people say they don't feel listened to -- that they're not seeing [board members] in the schools -- something needs some work," said Bobo, a former Howard County executive.

Schuchardt, in response, said, "I happen to [live] in her district, and I have been in a lot of [schools] this year."

She also said she listens to the public and responds to questions she receives. "I think all of us are responsive," she said of the board.

The withdrawn bill would have expanded the board to seven members and cut their terms from six to four years. Another suggestion, by Del. Frank S. Turner, a Columbia Democrat, would have made the two additional board members appointees of the county executive. Turner had offered a bill that would have had board members elected by County Council district instead of at large, but the delegation rejected the idea.

Turner said his bill would have ensured that each part of the county was represented. All five board members live west of U.S. 29, and no African-American candidates have been elected in more than 15 years.

The delegation chairman, Del. Shane Pendergrass, a Savage Democrat, said she was grateful the legislators raised the issue, making it a topic for public discussion, but was also thankful they withdrew it, because "I just didn't know how to vote on this bill."

State Sen. Martin G. Madden, a Republican who is Senate minority leader, said the delay won't pose problems.

"There's nothing we can do this year that we can't do next year. There will be no effect until 2002 [an election year], anyway. Let's see what [the board] comes up with," Madden said.

Schuchardt said she is "glad" the legislators withdrew the bill, and she pledged the board "will carry through" with the promised study.

The proposals for changing the board came against a backdrop of turmoil in Howard's top-rated school system this winter. Parents of children in older county schools, mostly in or near Columbia, have complained that their schools are being bypassed by the wealthiest families and the best teachers and administrators -- who, aided by school district boundaries and open enrollment policies, end up at the newest buildings in the most exclusive neighborhoods.

This has tended to concentrate African-American students and those from poor or non-English-speaking families in older schools. Those schools are likely to have lower standardized test scores. A committee jointly appointed by County Executive James N. Robey and schools Superintendent Michael E. Hickey is studying the situation and is to make recommendations next month.

On March 7, 18 school board candidates will be on the primary election ballot for two open seats.

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