School board shows downside of election

The Education Beat

Proof: The chaos generated in Prince George's County, Maryland's largest school system, gives advocates for appointed boards a lot of ammunition.

September 27, 2000|By Mike Bowler | Mike Bowler,SUN STAFF

THOSE WHO FAVOR the appointed school board over the elected have all the proof they need this fall in Upper Marlboro.

There, the elected board setting education policy for Prince George's County, Maryland's largest school system, is making a collective fool of itself, bickering over petty matters, spending public money on trips to Walt Disney World and infuriating the superintendent hired less than two years ago.

It's come to this: As Sun staff writer David Greene reported recently, Superintendent Iris T. Metts and board Chairman James Henderson are feuding over where the superintendent should sit during board meetings.

Metts wants to sit next to board members in a show of equality; Henderson and other board members want her to sit facing the board in a show of who's boss. (So far, Metts has prevailed.)

Not coincidentally, four Prince George's board members are up for re-election in November. Carroll County also has a heated school board race. And Carroll is only slightly ahead of Prince George's on a scale of efficiency and foolishness.

Awash in charges of bungled school construction projects - including a wastewater treatment plant built without permits - the board was forced to allow Superintendent William H. Hyde to "retire" to a resort village in western Montana, where he's running a school system with fewer kids than Carroll has teachers. Maryland taxpayers are paying Hyde $89,000 in salary and unused sick leave.

Good arguments exist on both sides of the elected-appointed debate, and appointed boards are perfectly capable of behaving childishly and making monumental blunders. One practical pro-appointive argument is posed by Robert Y. Dubel, retired Baltimore County superintendent.

Maryland is a state where school systems are dependent on county governments, Dubel notes, and an elective system of school board selection "pits two sets of competing elected bodies against each other. Elected boards make sense only if boards are fiscally independent, and we can't possibly have that unless we totally restructure the state tax system."

In an elective school district, campaigns sometimes bring out the worst. Incumbents posture, while challengers present themselves as "reformers," often calling for the head of the schools chief. This, in turn, forces incumbents to take a stand for or against the superintendent. No wonder the average superintendency in urban districts like Prince George's is about two years.

In Maryland, there's local option on the way boards are selected, and over the years half of the state's 24 districts have opted for elections. Nearly every year, there are calls in appointive districts like Baltimore to "take the schools closer to the people" via board elections.

In Prince George's, we witness the downside of that.

`The Battle of City Springs' documentary to be on MPT

"The Battle of City Springs," an excellent documentary about a year in the life of City Springs Elementary School in East Baltimore, will be aired at 9 p.m. Friday on Maryland Public Television.

First shown at the Maryland Film Festival last spring, "Battle" depicts a ninth-month battle with an indecisive outcome - more often than not the story of urban school reform.

In the 1997-1998 school year, the reform was Direct Instruction, a highly structured approach to teaching reading that has produced good results but still prompts contention. City Springs kids were - and are - mired in poverty and at risk of failure, and some of their teachers were suspicious of Direct Instruction, if not hostile to it.

Triumphs and tragedies are in "The Battle," but the tattered flag over the tattered school at Caroline and Lombard is still there.

Most of the film's main characters also are still at City Springs. Clinetta Hill, one of the kindergarten teachers who embraces Direct Instruction, has moved to the first grade. Also still at City Springs is Anayezuka Ahidiana, a Direct Instruction trainer described in the film as "legendary."

The year of the filming "seems like a dinosaur now," says Bernice Whelchel, in her sixth year as City Springs principal. "The teachers are believers, and the parents now understand the program. Two years ago, we didn't know as much as we do now about Direct Instruction. Now we've got it down to a science."

MPTwill feature a discussion of the film at 7 p.m. Friday

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