Election of school boards resurfaces

Old issue returns as dissatisfaction with panels grows

January 04, 2007|By Justin Fenton and Mary Gail Hare | Justin Fenton and Mary Gail Hare,Sun reporters

Dissatisfied with the performance of their school boards, officials in four Baltimore-area jurisdictions are gearing up to renew long-standing efforts to switch to boards elected by citizens.

Leaders in Anne Arundel, Baltimore and Harford counties, and Baltimore City have debated the issue in recent years. But complaints heard on the campaign trail last year appear to have jump-started the measures and could improve their prospects in next week's legislative session.

Seven school boards in Maryland are appointed, with one -- Queen Anne's County -- set to switch to an elected board after the 2008 election. Most counties have been moving toward elected boards, the prevalent practice nationwide.

In Baltimore, community activists are demanding a board that includes parents of children from less-affluent neighborhoods. Del. Jill P. Carter, who said she has introduced several bills promoting an elected school board since she took office, senses growing support this year.

"It was clear that the people always wanted this, but for the first time, my colleagues seem to be very much on board with it," said Carter, a Democrat who has announced her intention to run for mayor. She said Sen. Catherine E. Pugh will introduce a companion bill in the senate.

And in Anne Arundel, John R. Leopold -- who as a delegate petitioned for an elected board for years -- now is county executive and is expected to breathe new life into efforts there. The delegations in Harford and Baltimore counties could each seek "blended boards," made up of elected and appointed members.

Critics say elected boards are no more accountable than their appointed counterparts but instead are inclined to make decisions at the whims of voters and are subjected to the rigors of running a campaign. Four years ago, the elected board in Prince George's County was replaced with appointees amid in-fighting and financial mismanagement.

Jurisdictions across the nation are moving toward elected boards, and those that have are pleased with the results, said Reggie Felton, director of federal programs for the National Association of School Boards.

"It is all part of the democratic process," said Felton, a former member of the Montgomery County school board. "An elected board gives the local community a sense that they have a stake on who represents them as far as school policy is concerned. If those representatives are not in line with the community, people feel they can just elect someone else."

The Maryland Association of Boards of Education has not taken a position on whether boards should be elected or appointed, stating that there is "no evidence that either elected boards or appointed boards are more effective or accountable."

But the Harford County Board of Education recently issued a two-page statement opposing an elected board, raising issues that included pay and the potential effect of special interests.

"We are taking the heat for decisions made in the interest of all the students of the county," Ruth R. Rich, the past board president in Harford, said in an interview.

The changes could also strip the power of appointing board members from the governor's office in four of the state's largest jurisdictions. Gov.-elect Martin O'Malley could not be reached yesterday for comment.

Former Del. Rushern L. Baker III, who was involved with the dissolving of the Prince George's board in 2002, said counties that do not have glaring problems with their school system may face difficulty making the case for major structural changes.

"They'll look at what is going wrong in the system and how does changing the board itself improve education," Baker said. "In most cases, I'll be very honest, the governing structure will not change whether the system is good or bad."

The proposals in the different jurisdictions are varied. While most officials agree that school boards should be elected, sorting through the details has often presented a sticking point.

In previous years as a legislator, Leopold sponsored bills giving the county a greater say in the selection of the school board, but they died in the Senate. Now as county executive, the Republican said he likely will make that a priority he will recommend to the county's legislators.

"I believe this still represents the best hope for consensus reform," said the former five-term delegate.

Leopold said he has wrestled with this issue for more than two decades. The climate in the General Assembly may be more receptive this year because longtime Democratic Sen. Philip C. Jimeno, an opponent of Leopold's latest bill, is stepping down after a quarter-century.

In Baltimore County, state Sen. Bobby A. Zirkin is working on variations of a proposal that would create a "hybrid" board in which some members are appointed and others are elected.

"The bottom line is the public needs a voice on the school board," said Zirkin, a Democrat. "Having a more independent body and a more representative body can only be good for the kids."

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