Delegation backs bill to curb closed school board meetings

County would have state's strictest rules on private gatherings

Howard County

January 23, 2003|By Tricia Bishop | Tricia Bishop,SUN STAFF

Members of the Howard County legislative delegation voted yesterday to endorse a draft bill that would curb the Howard school board's use of private meetings. The vote, taken at a morning work session in Annapolis, was unanimous, with two members missing.

The proposed legislation would make Howard's the only school board in Maryland subject to such strict open-meetings regulation.

The bill isn't about taking power away from the board, said Del. Elizabeth Bobo, a Howard Democrat who introduced the draft. "It's about the right of the public in Howard County to know what the Board of Education is doing, particularly when discussing substantive issues."

That proposal, along with a bill that would allow judges to impose jail time for probation violations, will now go before the General Assembly.

A third piece of draft legislation, which would have required the Howard school superintendent to prepare a report on all-day kindergarten, was withdrawn during the meeting.

Del. James E. Malone Jr., a Baltimore County-Howard County Democrat, announced that he would introduce a late bond bill asking for money to build a day-care center in Elkridge.

Bobo's bill, which was recently rewritten to follow suggestions from the attorney general's office, would require that every meeting of the Howard County school board be subject to the state's open-meetings law.

Board members would be permitted to meet in private - or closed - session only when invoking one of the 14 reasons stated in the law, such as to discuss personnel matters, possible criminal conduct or negotiation strategy for contracts.

Other public bodies are allowed to hold undisclosed meetings to take care of "executive function" administrative duties, but the draft bill would specifically deny that right to the Howard board, which says it hasn't met in that capacity in two years.

"I hate to have Howard County have to do something that other counties don't," said Republican Sen. Robert H. Kittleman, Howard's Senate delegation chairman, "but Howard County is different than most of the counties in the state, so I vote yes, too."

Del. Neil F. Quinter, a Democrat, was stuck in traffic at the time of the vote, and Del. Robert L. Flanagan, a Republican recently selected by Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. to be Maryland's secretary of transportation, was absent.

The county's PTA Council and the League of Women Voters have expressed support for the bill, but the school board is split. Members James O'Donnell and Courtney Watson have said they favor the bill, but the three others are opposed, including board Chairman Sandra H. French, who said she is resigned to its possible passage.

"It's fine, I disagree with it, but we did our best and we have to move forward," French said.

Howard lawyer and open-meetings advocate Allen Dyer is thrilled.

"It reaffirms the commitment of the Howard County local delegation to the cornerstone of democracy: participation," he wrote in an e-mail to the delegation. "And that is a good message to hear anywhere, any time."

Quinter made it to the meeting just in time to discuss the bill he had drafted, which asked Superintendent John R. O'Rourke to look into starting all-day kindergarten at the neediest schools earlier than the state-required 2007 deadline. But instead of lobbying for it, Quinter killed it.

"Superintendent O'Rourke agreed voluntarily to prepare the report that my legislation called for him to do," Quinter said, adding later that O'Rourke will deliver the report "earlier than we can do with legislation anyway."

In a letter to Quinter, O'Rourke promised a report on early implementation by March 28, more than six months ahead of Quinter's schedule.

"Howard County is at the bottom of the state when it comes to full-day kindergarten," Quinter said, stressing the importance of getting the ball rolling right away. "Twelve thousand to 15,000 kids will go through kindergarten before the 2007 deadline. Those children will never take kindergarten again."

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