School board plan questioned

3 state senators say change in appointment process doesn't address concerns

March 30, 2005|By Liz F. Kay | Liz F. Kay,SUN STAFF

Three Anne Arundel County state senators say they have concerns about House Speaker Michael E. Busch's proposal to establish a new citizens commission that would recommend school board candidates to the governor, and then have those new members run for election.

On Monday, the House of Delegates passed the compromise plan by a 131-1 vote, with Anne Arundel Del. Joan Cadden dissenting. The plan mirrors the selection process for state appellate judges, who are confirmed by election.

The Senate will weigh the bill, but three of five county senators have said they probably will not support it. Local bills traditionally need the support of a majority in both the county's House and Senate delegations to advance.

"I don't want to see us change something if it's not going to be much better than the current system," said Sen. James E. DeGrange Sr., a Democrat.

Sen. John A. Giannetti Jr., a Democrat who represents parts of Anne Arundel and Prince George's counties, said he's not convinced the change would address some of the concerns about the school system.

"Parents are always so quick to point fingers at the school board" when schools don't succeed, said Giannetti. He stressed that it's the "stability [of leadership] that makes the school system excel."

Sen. Philip C. Jimeno, also a Democrat, has also said he doubts whether changing the process will lead to different outcomes.

Reached last week, Sen. Janet Greenip, a Republican, didn't rule out supporting the bill. Sen. John C. Astle, a Democrat, could not be reached for comment this week.

Busch said last week that he offered the amendment to a proposed referendum on elected school boards because of concerns that direct elections would hurt minority representation.

"In my district, the majority of the students in the public school system are African-American," Busch, of Annapolis, said last week. "That's why I've been protective of some kind of nominating process."

However, he said, "there was a consensus that change needed to be made."

Under the current system, a nominating convention of several hundred delegates screens candidates and forwards its picks to the governor, who makes the final decision. The governor is not required to choose one of their recommendations, however.

If approved, the measure would affect vacancies starting in 2006. The bill would create a 13-member nominating commission to make recommendations to the governor, who would have to select from its list.

Once appointed, the member would serve on the board until the next general election and then run on the ballot to retain the seat. Anne Arundel - one of eight school districts whose school board members are appointed by the governor - would be the first in the state to adopt such a method.

Some criticize the current process, because the governor is not required to select from candidates vetted by the convention, unlike the new proposal.

Three years ago, some Anne Arundel parents were outraged when then-Gov. Parris N. Glendening passed over the convention's preferred choice and selected businessman Konrad M. Wayson, who had the backing of County Executive Janet S. Owens.

"That's probably as close to an elected school board as we're going to get," said Sheila M. Finlayson, president of the Teachers Association of Anne Arundel County, which backed the referendum.

Bob Burdon of the Annapolis and Anne Arundel Chamber of Commerce has voiced support for the bill as well, although the group previously opposed direct election of school board members. In a letter to senators, Burdon wrote that the bill "offers what we believe to be an appropriate solution to the present problems plaguing the current convention selection process, which has also been a cause for concern at the Chamber of Commerce."

This is not the first time that Busch, a county parks and recreation official, has weighed in on the issue during the more than two decades that the Anne Arundel delegation has considered the school board debate.

In 1995, Busch persuaded the House delegation to back a proposal to have a nominating commission pick three members (without a subsequent election), but the county's Senate delegation did not go along. The next year, county senators passed a bill to allow the county executive to appoint members, but delegates did not support it.

Dels. John R. Leopold and Tony McConkey, Anne Arundel Republicans who along with two Democrats sponsored the original bill, supported Busch's amendment last week.

The change will make board members "more accountable, more responsive," McConkey said. "I think this is 100 percent better than what we had."

Added Leopold: "The element of the proposal that I think helped generate the consensus is that these appointees must receive public scrutiny."

Until recently, the delegation was focusing on a bill that would have given voters three options: the status quo, a board appointed by elected county officials, or a hybrid of appointed and elected members.

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