Selection of school board is at issue

Lack of candidates prompts renewal of debate about process

March 20, 2000|By Jackie Powder | Jackie Powder,SUN STAFF

In what has become an annual ritual, critics of Anne Arundel County's school board selection procedure are raising questions about the process -- this time because there are only three candidates for the two seats that will become available July 1.

"It's like throwing a party that no one comes to," said Carolyn Roeding, former president of the County Council of PTAs. "It's just not working, and it's reflected in the lack of people willing to go through the process."

Local officials and community activists have argued about the selection process for years. Some favor an elected school board or one appointed by the county executive. The members are appointed by the governor.

A fall survey by the Center for the Study of Local Issues at Anne Arundel Community College found that 73 percent of county residents supported an elected school board. Eleven percent opposed the idea, and 16 percent were not sure.

"In my mind, that suggests that if a referendum were held, the elected school board would do quite well," said Dan Nataf, the center's director. "By and large, when people are given the option of electing somebody to office, they tend to gravitate to it."

Roeding called the process a "sham," saying "whoever has the ear of the governor determines who goes in there. We need an elected school board, and if that is not acceptable to our elected officials in Annapolis, they should at least make it part of the ballot so the people can decide if they want to continue this sham."

Delegates to the county's School Board Nominating Convention elect the top two candidates for each open seat. The recommendations are forwarded to the governor, who makes the final selection but is not required to choose the recommended candidates.

Anne Arundel County's situation contrasts with that of other counties, where school board hopefuls were plentiful before the March 7 primary. In Carroll, 22 candidates ran for two seats. Seventeen people sought two seats in Howard, and 18 competed for three seats in Frederick County. These counties have elected boards.

In Anne Arundel, incumbent Michael J. McNelly of Tracy's Landing will face Steven H. Johnson of Annapolis for the seat from South County and Annapolis. Incumbent Janet Bury of Brooklyn Park is unopposed in her bid for a second five-year term.

Alan Lang, chairman of the county's School Board Nominating Convention Committee, said the group will meet today to decide whether to extend the candidate registration deadline, which was March 14. This year's convention is scheduled for May 10 at Annapolis High School.

The county's 13-member General Assembly delegation voted down a bill Friday that would have provided for a straw poll on the November general election ballot, allowing voters to choose a school board selection method from three options -- the existing process, appointment by the county executive instead of the governor or election. The poll was an amendment to a bill sponsored by Dels. John R. Leopold, a 31st District Republican, and C. Richard D'Amato, a 30th District Democrat. The bill would have given the power to appoint school board members to the county executive.

The amendment's primary sponsor, 31st District Democratic Del. Joan Cadden, voted for the amendment but against the bill.

The amendment was also sponsored by Leopold and Dels. James E. Rzepkowski, a 32nd District Republican; David E. Boschert, a 33rd District Republican from Crownsville; and Janet Greenip, a 33rd District Republican from Crofton.

Roeding said Cadden's actions were politically motivated. "Why in the world would someone sponsor an amendment and then vote against the bill?" she asked. "It's so she can say to her constituents, `I tried.' "

Cadden could not be reached to comment.

Leopold, who sponsored a bill three years ago that called for a referendum, said the poll could have answered some questions about the school board selection process.

"The delegation has wrestled with this issue for more than a decade," he said. "Clearly, it would be helpful to have input from the public on a ballot."

Lang suggested that the incumbents' decision to seek reappointment might have eliminated potential candidates. But he doesn't blame the process.

"I don't think the elected school board would give you any better or any worse candidates than we already have," he said. A major advantage of the convention process is that candidates don't have to run long and expensive campaigns, he added.

Nataf said the incumbency factor has to be considered because "the incumbents naturally scare people away."

School board President Paul G. Rudolph also sees the incumbents' presence as a deterrent to some. Still, he's disappointed that only one challenger has stepped up.

"I think it's terrible myself," said Rudolph, who supports the existing selection process. "The process is simple and straightforward. It's not a big election where you have to raise a lot of money."

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