More power for counties over school chiefs sought

Kittleman seeks removal of need to get state OK for hiring and firing

January 15, 2003|By Tricia Bishop | Tricia Bishop,SUN STAFF

A bill that would give county school boards across Maryland the authority to hire and fire their superintendents - without the currently required state superintendent's approval - will be introduced within the week by Republican Robert H. Kittleman, the Howard County Senate delegation chairman.

Kittleman said school boards should be "the ultimate authority" in governing their superintendents.

"The superintendent is the only employee that they hire directly," Kittleman said. "He shouldn't be able to tell them to `go to hell because [state Superintendent] Nancy S. Grasmick won't let you fire me.' "

During a meeting of the Howard delegation in Annapolis, county legislators also decided to proceed with a bond bill that would provide $500,000 for repairs to the historic Blandair Mansion in Columbia and killed a bill to renovate the county's courthouse.

All other Howard bills, including one intended to require more open school board meetings, were held over for further discussion during next week's session.

The Maryland Board of Education has not seen Kittleman's draft legislation, but spokesman Bill Reinhard said members have concerns that the bill could lead to less-qualified superintendents.

"We don't want anything introduced that would reduce the level of capability of superintendent candidates," Reinhard said. That risk exists, he said, if local boards hire people "without having the state superintendent involved to help with the credentials."

The draft legislation - a version of which was originally going to be proposed at the Howard County level by Del. Elizabeth Bobo, a Democrat, but was pulled to allow Kittleman to bring it in at the state level - was developed in part to keep other boards out of the mess that Prince George's County found itself in last year, Kittleman said.

Last year, Prince George's school board members tried to fire Superintendent Iris T. Metts, but its decision was unanimously overturned by the state Board of Education. The local board members were subsequently stripped of their power and later replaced with state appointees.

Kittleman said those board members were undoubtedly "a bunch of nuts, but deserved the last word on their school superintendent's employment.

"They have to have that authority to have a responsive employee," Kittleman said.

A public hearing on the proposed legislation will be held at 7:30 p.m. Feb. 6 in the George Howard Building in Ellicott City.

Discussion on another draft bill that would deny Howard County school board members access to executive-function meetings - which allow public bodies to assemble without public notification or record-keeping to discuss certain administrative matters - was postponed.

The draft bill was introduced in December by Bobo, but yesterday she asked that local legislators not vote on whether to support the proposal until the attorney general's office could advise her of its impact on a civil case in Howard's Circuit Court.

Howard County lawyer Allen Dyer is suing the school board over what he says are open-meetings violations and charges that local laws deny members access to the oft-abused executive function. The board maintains that the local laws allow it access to executive function.

A letter from Assistant Attorney General Jack Schwartz to Bobo yesterday said the legislation would have no effect on the court case.

"In my view, the new law would not render the pending litigation moot nor change the basis under which the court would decide the legality of the board's past actions ... because the bill is not retroactive," Schwartz wrote, to Bobo's relief.

Last week, the Howard County Board of Education voted 3-2 to formally oppose the suggested bill, saying it should not be singled out to lose a right other boards have, that it has followed the letter of the law and that disallowing it access to executive function is inconsistent with the philosophy of the Open Meetings Act.

Bobo said she has objections to all three rationales.

"They say that Howard County should not be singled out, yet they sent in a request asking us to do exactly that - single them out and make it easier for them to go into closed session," Bobo said, referring to a year-old request from board members asking her to give them undeniable access to executive function.

Bobo also said the board could not have followed the "letter of the law" because members have been found guilty of breach twice by the state Open Meetings Board - "more than any other board of education in the state" - and that claiming inconsistency with the philosophy of the law is ludicrous.

"I completely disagree with that, particularly from a board cited with violations," Bobo said.

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