A good argument for elected boards


March 12, 2000|By MIKE BURNS

THE question of whether to have an elected or appointed school board seems to pop up every time there's a school controversy. It's change the critics want, but it rarely happens.

Carroll and half the other counties in Maryland elect their school board members. The remaining boards are appointed by the governor; Baltimore City's board is picked by the mayor and governor. Nationwide, a majority of school districts elect their boards.

It's instructive to look at Baltimore County, where an anonymous dozen political appointees is asserting the divine right of kings in its secretive selection of a suspicious character as the new superintendent. That appointed board has rejected public questions and criticism, while assailing the integrity of those who dare raise legitimate concerns.

Does that sound a little like the kind of criticism leveled at Carroll's elected board of education in recent years, as a result of construction mistakes and lawsuits caused by the administration? Elected or appointed, school boards are quick to circle the wagons at the hint of any wrongdoing in their realm. And woe be to the nay-sayers.

But if you want a good reason for electing the school board, this year's Carroll County election campaign amply provides it.

The array of candidates was astounding, both in numbers and in various positive qualities that would well serve the school system.

Twenty-two candidates were running for two open seats on the five-member board; four were chosen last Tuesday to run in November. (Two others had filed for the ballot but later dropped out. )

The Sun sent questionnaires asking candidates their views on timely school topics. The responses were sometimes handwritten, several on a typewriter and some on the computer. They were invariably on target with their answers, even if the candidates took different positions. They showed an interest in and knowledge of education and the Carroll system that should be heartening to the citizenry.

Answers from several contestants also provided some interesting personal insights.

One person explained that he was employed by a large international firm whose affiliate had a contract with the school board. He was not involved with that affiliate or with the contract, the candidate explained, and would defer on board matters if a potential conflict of interest appeared.

The primary school experience of another candidate was crucial in forming his views of education. He had been held back a grade and viewed it as the gift of a second chance to learn, not a cause for shame. Therefore, he favored making kids repeat grades they had not mastered, rather than passing them under a system of social promotion.

There were candidates who promised tougher scrutiny of school board construction projects and those who felt it was time to move on and focus on the mission of improving teaching and learning.

Candidates generally agreed that starting teacher salaries need to be raised -- Carroll ranks near the bottom of Maryland school systems in that regard. Competition for new teachers is stiff and pay is a key attraction. Respondents talked about merit pay to recognize veteran teachers who excel, but there was no consensus on how this might be done.

There was a consensus that basic education needs to be emphasized early if children are to succeed in later grades. But the explanations ranged from general approval of current instructional programs to indignant criticism and calls for a return to fundamentals and phonics.

The newspaper asked about the systemwide performance audit of Carroll schools over the next three years. Most favored some sort of audit, though a few thought it was a meaningless exercise to cover over a string of publicized mistakes by the administration.

While filling out forms and questionnaires isn't the most exciting part of running for office, this field of candidates probably felt that the media were the best hope for getting out their message to a public overwhelmed by the sheer number of competitors.

One complaint heard repeatedly was that the public forums didn't allow the individuals enough time to articulate their views or to show the audience their best side.

The blame is not on the forums and their organizers, however. It's impossible to have 20 people speak for more than a few minutes at such a gathering.

Questions from the audience about one hopeful's position invites a myriad responses from others who don't want to be short-changed. Anyone who has seen those TV panel free-for-alls with only four participants can appreciate the magnitude of that problem.

Indeed, if heated panel debates are preferred, voters can hark back to 1996 when two fiscal and educational conservatives formed a team to go after two board members running for re-election. The result was a clear and wide distinction between the two slates; but it was mainly a vote on the status quo or radical change, with no thoughtful middle ground.

That's why this year's school board election is an exciting one, with a rich mix of ideas and approaches. Voters should appreciate the choice and rejoice in the willingness of able contenders to enter the ring.

Mike Burns writes editorials for The Sun from Carroll County. C. Fraser Smith is on assignment.

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