School board change stalled

Bills to shift city, 3 counties to elected members are stuck in legislative mill

General Assembly

March 08, 2007|By Mary Gail Hare | Mary Gail Hare,Sun Reporter

The prospects for four Maryland jurisdictions to elect their school boards, instead of having the state continue to appoint their members, appear bleak this year because legislation necessary for the change is stalled in the General Assembly with only a month left before adjournment.

While lawmakers are running out of time in the 2007 session, House and Senate leaders have publicly stated opposition to elected boards and two delegations have been unable to agree on what form their bills should take.

Though lawmakers from Harford, Anne Arundel, and Baltimore counties, as well as Baltimore City, say constituents are demanding the ability to choose school board members, none of their proposals has come to a full vote in the House or Senate. The Baltimore County delegation has not sent a bill to committee and Anne Arundel's senators are considering two measures, with a vote planned today. The city is awaiting committee hearings this month on companion bills in the House and Senate, and proponents of the city's effort are already looking at a referendum in the fall as a contingency.

And the Harford measure is hung up in the House Ways and Means Committee and appears unlikely to pass, officials said.

"We are still pushing, but none of these school board bills have moved," said Republican Del. Barry Glassman, Harford delegation leader and bill sponsor. "The decision not to support these bills is coming down from higher levels."

Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller has spoken out strongly against elected boards, and House Speaker Michael E. Busch has said he opposes the concept, though he added that he would not thwart a bill that had the support of a local delegation.

"On local matters, such as the election of a school board, I defer to the wishes of the individual delegations in deciding the best direction for their individual county government structure," Busch said in an e-mail response to a reporter's questions on the topic.

Gov. Martin O'Malley also favors appointed school boards but believes "the decision should be left to local jurisdictions," spokeswoman Sasha Leonhardt said yesterday.

With its bill in jeopardy, Harford has pursued an unusual alternative -- a Senate bill that would allow school board and superintendent decisions to be appealed to the County Council. The measure, believed to be the first of its kind in Maryland, would give residents dissatisfied with redistricting, curriculum issues or a banned book the option of asking the council to intervene.

But the measure has met with lukewarm response from local leaders.

"I don't know if that would solve the problem," said Harford County Council President Billy Boniface. "We are not educators, and this would politicize the issues."

By contrast, the council had lined up solidly behind the elected school board bill. Boniface drafted a letter to Del. Sheila E. Hixson, chairwoman of the Ways and Means Committee, saying the bill conforms to the wishes of voters and urging her to act on it. Councilman Richard C. Slutzky, a Republican from Aberdeen, said local courtesy was being flouted by the "agenda of two people" -- Miller and Busch.

Republican Sen. Nancy Jacobs, who represents parts of Harford and Cecil counties, said she believes the delegation is rushing the issue.

"Even if [the elected school board] bill gets through the House, I am not inclined to support it," she said. "This issue needs to be studied more and discussed."

Should the bill to implement an elected board fail, Republican Sens. J. Robert Hooper and Andrew P. Harris have drafted a measure to enable residents to appeal school board decisions to the County Council.

"Letting the council decide is one way to bring an elected board into the process," Harris said.

The bill, scheduled to come before the Senate's Environmental, Education and Health Committee on Tuesday, might set a precedent in Maryland, where appeals on local schools issues are filed with the state education board.

The measure would expire in November 2009, by which time officials expect a resolution to the elected board debate.

But Debora Merlock, president of the Greater Edgewood Education Foundation and former vice president of the Harford County Council of PTAs, said allowing appeals to the council "would diminish the role of the superintendent, who makes educated decisions based on best practices."

The Harford school board has publicly opposed the transition to an elected panel but will not discuss the Senate proposal until its meeting on Monday. School board president Mark M. Wolkow called the senators' plan "unprecedented with no other process like this in Maryland."

Glassman wondered how council members could "keep up to speed on every education issue."

Despite a petition with more than 1,000 signatures in favor of an elected board and hundreds of calls and e-mails from supporters of electing the school board, Glassman says the initiative likely will have to wait.

"If it doesn't make it, we will try again next year," Glassman said. "Parents are saying that they want somebody to listen to their concerns."

mary.gail.hare@baltsun.com

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