James faulted after school board bill fails

April 13, 2008|By Mary Gail Hare | Mary Gail Hare,Sun reporter

For the second consecutive year, the state legislature has failed to enact an elected school board bill for Harford County and many are blaming Del. Mary-Dulany James, a Havre de Grace Democrat, for the latest defeat.

The bill, co-sponsored by Republican Sens. Barry Glassman and Andy Harris, would have phased in six elected members and three appointed members over the next four years. The current seven-member board is appointed by the governor to five-year terms.

In March, the Senate version of the bill passed unanimously, 45-0. The measure headed to the House with the backing of three Harford state senators and six of the seven County Council members.

Supporters said it should have received local courtesy consideration and sailed through. But the House version never made it out of committee and the bill died.

"The bottom line is, one delegate had the clout to bottle this bill up in committee," said Del. Susan K. McComas, leader of the county delegation. "When it came out of the Senate, the bill had legs. There was no reason not to grant it local courtesy. I do not understand why Delegate James is opposed."

Laying the failure of the bill at her doorstep creates "a sorry state of affairs," James said.

"Local courtesy has to be the result of unanimous delegation support or of consensus-building," James said. "We have to come up with a bill that everyone can support. There are strongly held positions on both sides of this issue."

Del. Sheila E. Hixson, chair of the House Ways and Means Committee where the bill floundered, said repeatedly that she would not champion a local issue that did not have widespread community support and the endorsement of the local school board.

"Of course the school board is opposed," said Councilman Dion F. Guthrie. "They would have to be elected."

McComas pushed unsuccessfully for the bill until the session ended Monday.

"If voters were happy with the status quo on the school board, we would not be here," she said.

Cindy Mumby, a parent activist who testified in favor of the bill, said: "If elections are good enough for the president, the governor and the county executive, it should be good enough for the school board."

James has been criticized publicly, even by fellow Democrats such as Guthrie.

Republican Councilwoman Veronica "Roni" L. Chenowith said she was deeply disturbed that the delegate "stonewalled and killed the issue."

"I hope the hundreds of parents remember this when election time comes around," Chenowith said.

Republican Councilman James V. McMahan, who also testified in favor of the bill, added: "It bothers me that the very elected process by which Ms. James is in office is not good enough for our children."

Councilwoman Mary Ann Lisanti, who withheld her signature from the council's letter supporting the bill, said putting the failure on the shoulders of a single legislator is unfair.

"We have to rise above individual disappointment and vote for the good we feel, whether that is popular or not," Lisanti said.

The issue will resurface next year, said Glassman, who added that he is disappointed but not discouraged. Contentious reforms typically take a few years to pass, he said.

"Politically, we are on the right side and ultimately we will succeed," Glassman said. "It is hard to argue with people who want to elect school leaders."

James said she is willing to compromise. She would like to see a group that includes parents, teachers, officials and business owners hammer out an agreement.

"We will have success when this issue is decided collectively, not individually," James said. "The problems of an appointed board should be described with facts detailing how an elected board would provide a solution."

Mumby said supporters remain adamant.

"We're determined to keep fighting, because we know this bill didn't fail on the merits," Mumby said. "The message I keep getting back is, we're going to fight. The people don't like it in this country when you tell them you can't vote for their leaders.

"The last thing I have seen is discouragement," she said. "We'll just come back and come back and come back until we achieve this goal."

mary.gail.hare@baltsun.com

Sun reporter Madison Park contributed to this article.

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