A lesson in school rule

Assembly leaders oppose elected boards, but many Marylanders are demanding the choice

General Assembly

January 29, 2007|By Justin Fenton | Justin Fenton,Sun reporter

General Assembly leaders have signaled that they are opposed to attempts by several Baltimore-area jurisdictions to switch to elected school boards, bucking a trend toward elected bodies that legislators and parent groups say would boost educational accountability.

Perhaps still smarting from the 2002 overhaul of the dysfunctional Prince George's County school board, Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller and House Speaker Michael E. Busch have said they oppose the change. Miller called an elected school board "the worst thing that could possibly happen to anybody" and suggested that Busch block efforts in the House.

"If I go to hell, it's going to be because I created an elected school board [in Prince George's County]. It's terrible," Miller said during a radio appearance this month. "I know it hasn't happened in Anne Arundel County [or] Baltimore County, and I hope the speaker has the political will to keep it from happening."

Busch, who said he personally opposes an elected school board, said in an interview that he wouldn't thwart any bills if legislators can come to an agreement.

"I wouldn't stand in the way of the majority," Busch said. "I wouldn't vote for it, but if there's enough votes, then it should go through."

Lawmakers from Anne Arundel, Harford and Baltimore counties, as well as Baltimore City, say their constituents are demanding the ability to choose school board members. Several counties have been given the green light in recent years to begin electing board members, and by 2008 just six of the state's 24 jurisdictions will have an appointed school board.

Each county delegation would respectively have to coalesce around a plan - a significant challenge that has derailed efforts in recent years. In Anne Arundel County, for example, legislators have failed for more than a decade to come to an agreement on how to structure an elected school board.

But in several other counties, those details have been smoothed out. Once they are, the legislation cruises through the Assembly under a long-standing Annapolis tradition known as "local courtesy." Under the practice, the entire legislature typically defers to the wishes of a small group on matters that affect just that area.

It's unclear what impact the reluctance of the Assembly's presiding officers would have on the local bills - but it is unlikely to help the effort.

"I've been here 17 years, and there's very little local legislation that gets blocked," said Del. James E. Proctor Jr., who represents the southern portion of Prince George's County and supports elected school boards despite the recent shake-up there.

A plan in Talbot County to switch to an elected school board and collectively give members a $14,000 salary was approved in 2005 by all but one member of the General Assembly, former Democratic Del. Neil F. Quinter of Howard County. The change came after voters approved a referendum.

"There were definitely [legislators] that don't agree with the concept, but the voters made it clear-cut that that was what they wanted," said Del. Jeannie Haddaway-Riccio, an Eastern Shore Republican who co-sponsored the bill.

Two years earlier, Cecil County's senators successfully passed a bill as well. Queen Anne's County will have an elected school board by 2008.

Asked to elaborate on his stance, Miller said he believes voters in rural counties are more in touch with the issues affecting their school systems than their neighbors in larger jurisdictions.

Busch, meanwhile, said school boards should not have elected members unless they also have fiscal autonomy - the ability to levy taxes. In Maryland, taxes for schools are raised by the state and by counties - as well as Baltimore City.

Nationally, about 96 percent of school board members are elected, and about 85 percent have fiscal autonomy.

Critics say elected boards are no more accountable than their appointed counterparts, but instead are inclined to make decisions that respond to the whims of voters.

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."

Lawmakers who plan to introduce school board bills said they would push ahead with their plans and hope to compromise. But county delegations appear to face much negotiating in the weeks ahead.

Sen. Bobby A. Zirkin, a Democrat from Baltimore County, said he hoped the leadership would be more amenable to his proposal of a "blended board," made up of both elected and appointed members.

"I'm not in favor of elected school boards either - I believe in having a mix," said Zirkin. His bill will compete with a proposal from fellow Baltimore County Sens. Katherine A. Klausmeier and Andrew P. Harris that would create a nominating convention.

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