Harford Could Become First Md. County With 'Blended' School Board

April 27, 2009|By Jonathan Pitts | Jonathan Pitts,jonathan.pitts@baltsun.com

Gov. Martin O'Malley will decide next month whether Harford County will become the only jurisdiction in Maryland - and one of the few in the nation - to have a school board made up of both appointed and elected members.

The General Assembly, in its recent session, passed legislation allowing what is called a "blended" school board, thus putting the governor in a position to decide between the will of the Harford County delegation, which unanimously supported the bill, and the governor-appointed Harford County Board of Education, which has asked O'Malley to veto the bill.

A spokesman for O'Malley, Shaun Adamec, said the governor has not decided whether to sign the measure.

Harford is one of five Maryland counties in which the governor appoints the entire school board. County Republicans have long pushed for an elected board, only to be stymied in an overwhelmingly Democratic state legislature.

Blended school boards are "pretty rare" in the United States, said Reginald Felton, director of federal relations for the National School Boards Association. The Alexandria, Va.-based organization keeps no figures on the number of such boards, he said.

Most districts go one way or the other, Felton said, and when boards are blended, "the appointed members generally seem to reflect the policies of the officials" who have selected them.

The measure would expand the school board to nine members from seven. County voters would choose six, one from each council member's district, and the governor would appoint three others.

"That way, voters in every part of the county would have their say," Republican Del. Susan McComas said, but if elections led to insufficient minority representation or other disparities, "the governor could rectify matters."

The bill would phase in the changes during the next two election cycles, with the first three elected members taking office next year and the second three elected in 2014.

The school board, which warned of "practical difficulties in implementation" of the bill, sent O'Malley a letter earlier this month requesting a veto.

Board member Mark Wolkow said the bill was too vague in defining how the changes would be implemented. For instance, he said, it calls for eliminating three appointed seats in 2010 without clarifying whose seats those should be or how the decision would be made.

Two years ago, Republican state Sen. Barry Glassman submitted a bill to create a fully elected board. But opponents, including a spokesman for the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, voiced concern that such a board might end up lacking minority representation.

Members of the Senate Education, Health and Environmental Affairs Committee amended the bill, calling instead for the state's first blended board, said Democratic Sen. Joan Carter Conway, the committee chairwoman.

"The amendment fixed the diversity problem, but it would still allow the taxpayers to have their say," Conway said.

"It's a unique compromise that could end up as a test case in Maryland," Glassman said. "It could become a model for the rest of the state."

Washington had a blended school board as recently as 2007, although that was only a temporary measure as the district tried to phase in an all-elected board. The experiment ended when Mayor Adrian M. Fenty and the City Council took control of the failing school system.

The Harford County Council, several PTAs and the Edgewood Community Council have voiced support for an elected board.

Cindy Mumby, a PTA officer and the mother of a Harford County student, saw potential implementation problems as less important than the chance to give citizens input into their county's educational system.

"Appointed officials are so separated from the people they serve," she said. "The appointment process is inappropriate if the goal is creating a partnership between the public and their leaders."

Interim schools Superintendent Patricia Skebeck says she is taking no sides on the issue. Although the current system has produced "thoughtful, concerned" board members who do their job conscientiously, she said, she expects a partially elected board would do much the same.

"Either way, it's our job to work with whomever we get, and that's what we'll do," Skebeck said.

PICKING THE BOARD

* Elected in 18 Maryland counties: Allegany, Calvert, Carroll, Cecil, Charles, Dorchester, Frederick, Garrett, Howard, Kent, Montgomery, Prince George's, Queen Anne, St. Mary's, Somerset, Talbot, Washington and Worcester

* Appointed by the governor in five counties: Anne Arundel, Baltimore, Caroline, Harford and Wicomico

* Jointly appointed by the governor and the mayor in Baltimore City

Source: Maryland Association of Boards of Education

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