Change sought in school board selection

Bill would let voters choose 1 of 3 processes

Anne Arundel

February 04, 2005|By Liz F. Kay | Liz F. Kay,SUN STAFF

Anne Arundel County voters would decide next year who should have a say in picking school board members under a bill being pushed by four county lawmakers.

The bill, introduced yesterday in the House of Delegates, calls for a referendum in 2006 for voters to choose among three options: the current system of appointment by the governor; selection by the county executive with County Council approval; or a mix of elected and county executive-appointed seats.

The bill was sponsored by Republican Dels. John R. Leopold of Pasadena and Tony McConkey of Severna Park, and Democratic Dels. Barbara A. Frush and Brian R. Moe, who both represent parts of Prince George's and Anne Arundel counties.

"The delegation has been divided, and a compromise has been elusive," said Leopold, who has been trying for 20 years to change the board's selection process.

The proposed change would make selection of school board members a local choice, he said.

Anne Arundel residents "think it ought to be a local decision of one kind of another," Leopold said.

The bill represents a compromise among delegates who favored elections and those who feared it would make it difficult for candidates from diverse backgrounds to be elected, McConkey said. Last year, he sponsored and later withdrew legislation for an all-elected board because it lacked support from the delegation.

"Anne Arundel County will blaze a new path, and we'll see how it works," he said.

Under the current system, representatives of community and religious groups select candidates for open seats through a nominating convention. These recommendations are sent to the governor, who makes the final decision. But the governor is not required to pick the convention's nominees.

The measure would allow voters to select either the current system; appointment for five-year terms by the county executive with confirmation by the County Council; or appointment of three at-large members by the county executive and council with voters picking four additional members from legislative districts for four-year terms.

All options would retain the eighth member -- a student selected by the Chesapeake Regional Association of Student Councils who shares the same powers as the other members.

Legislators mixed

Leopold described the option of county executive appointments as a "safety valve" because those seats could be used to maintain the board's racial and geographic balance.

Under the bill, the first election would not take place until 2012, Leopold said.

Frush is considering a similar bill for Prince George's, although she wouldn't introduce it until next year's session, said Duncan Munro, her legislative assistant.

Appointments by the Anne Arundel County executive could also improve the often-adversarial relationship between the County Council and the board, McConkey said.

"If the County Council had a role in their selection, maybe they'd work better together," he said.

Other legislators favor keeping the current system. Sen. Philip C. Jimeno called the issue a perennial one and said he has opposed elected school board proposals under both Democratic and Republican governors.

He questioned whether the concern was with the process or the board's decisions. He said he was satisfied with board members from different geographic areas, as long as the governor is willing to honor the nominating convention's selection.

"Whether you elect or appoint, there's always going to be some criticism of decisions of the board," Jimeno said.

Seeking change

Of the few people who addressed the topic at a recent delegation hearing, most supported change of some sort.

More local control is wise, said Andy Smarick, an Arnold resident and charter school advocate who recently spoke in favor of county government appointment.

"At the end of the day, the county executive is the one who is going to be held accountable for education results because they're the ones who put forward the money for it," he said yesterday.

But he does not support election of school board members. Candidates may have motives for running -- a single issue or special interest, for example -- that are not always in the best interest of students, he said.

"There's never been any evidence anywhere that says elected school boards get better education results," Smarick said.

Leslie C. Swiger-Cowing, a mother of twins at Severna Park Middle School who also spoke at the delegation hearing, said yesterday that she has grown frustrated serving on the nominating convention after governors ignored the group's recommendation.

Swiger-Cowing said she likes the option of letting both voters and elected county officials decide but wants the nominating process to be spelled out to ensure diversity on the board.

"It does provide a better check and balance" to have both elected and appointed members, she said. But, she added, "if people want to be a candidate, what do they do?"

Around the state

Voters in more than half of Maryland's 24 school systems now elect board members, including Carroll, Howard and Montgomery counties, said Carl W. Smith, executive director of the Maryland Association of Boards of Education.

The Cecil County delegation has discussed changing to an elected school board, he said. Baltimore County is also considering requiring state Senate confirmation of its candidates.

Each delegation from counties with an elected board developed its own rules to select board members and to fill vacancies, Smith said. Under the draft Anne Arundel legislation, the county executive would fill vacancies with the approval of the County Council.

The state school boards association takes no position in the debate over elected boards, he said, because they are indistinguishable.

"No matter how you get there, you face the same challenges," Smith said.

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