Style over substance

January 10, 2007

The new General Assembly session will likely see a revival of proposals to elect rather than appoint Baltimore's school board. That's more a matter of style than substance. The problems that plague the city school system - as well as solutions - won't change with an elected board.

A well-functioning school board reflects local and parental interests, oversees the administrative staff and provides an additional layer of accountability. In Maryland, most school boards are elected, reflecting the national pattern. But about a third, including Baltimore's, are appointed, which is also not unusual for urban districts that face special challenges. Whether appointed or elected, however, politics generally plays a role in the selection process and school board seats often serve as steppingstones to different elective offices.

For the past decade, Baltimore has had a politically engineered hybrid largely resulting from a lawsuit, with the nine-member Board of School Commissioners appointed jointly by the mayor and the governor, allowing local control but also recognizing that the state provides the majority of funding for city schools.

Although at least one of the board members must be a parent with a child in the school system, many community activists want more parents, particularly those from low-income neighborhoods, as board members. They support legislative proposals to switch to a partially elected board. But there's no guarantee that such a change would bring about the desired result, since school board campaigns could draw well-financed candidates who would not represent the interests of low-income communities. In addition, the school system's chronic problems, including underfinancing, confused lines of authority and the need for strong principals and quality teachers, must be tackled more aggressively by the board, whether elected or appointed, and by school administrators.

The current structure isn't perfect, but a way to start would be to push soon-to-be-Gov. Martin O'Malley and soon-to-be-Mayor Sheila Dixon to appoint a parent from a low-income neighborhood to fill at least one of three current vacancies and to make the joint appointment process more collaborative and responsive to the needs of the schools. It's also important to help strengthen and train parent groups, giving them more knowledge and insight to deal with the board as an effective check and balance. Right now, those approaches are better than switching to an elected board.

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