Md. lawmakers look at putting elected members on Baltimore city, county school boards

Measures strongly opposed by local governments, school officials, activist groups

March 12, 2010|By Liz Bowie and Julie Bykowicz | Baltimore Sun reporters

For the first time in years, state lawmakers are taking a serious look at reforming the school board selection process in Baltimore City and Baltimore County and are considering bills that would put elected members on those boards.

The measures, however, face significant opposition from local government and school officials, including Baltimore County Executive James T. Smith Jr., Mayor Stephanie C. Rawlings-Blake, education advocates and Baltimoreans United in Leadership Development, as well as both the city and county school boards.

The first test of whether the bills have any chance of passage will come today when both the city and county delegations vote on whether to back them. The city vote is likely to be close. Approval by the delegations would mean the bills would move on to House of Delegates and Senate committees that, as a courtesy, often pass local bills that are supported by those delegates.

The city board is appointed by the governor and mayor jointly after the candidates are vetted by the Maryland State Board of Education. The county board is appointed by the governor with input from the county executive. Legislators say the city and the county are two of the last state jurisdictions that have completely appointed boards.

Supporters say they believe elected school boards would be more responsive to the public, but opponents fear they would not have the diversity or the expertise of today's all-appointed volunteer panels.

"For the first time in decades, the Baltimore City school system is no longer the laughingstock of the state," said Bishop Douglas Miles, a leader of BUILD and pastor of the Koinonia Baptist Church. "To bring more politics to the current progress would be detrimental to the children of Baltimore."

Baltimore County school board President JoAnne Murphy said there is particular concern about a House bill that would create an entirely elected board for the county. If passed, that proposal would take effect by the end of the year and only six weeks before the vote on the $1 billion budget.

"This is not a referendum on the current school board," said Sen. Bobby Zirkin, a Baltimore County Democrat who introduced a hybrid bill this year that calls for a blend of appointed and elected members. "It's purely a public-policy issue for me."

Del. Cheryl D. Glenn, a Baltimore Democrat, has a bill similar to what Zirkin is requesting for the county.

"We're asking for a partially elected board so that citizens can have input and the board will be accountable to them," she said. Parents feel "disenfranchised and disconnected," and she sees a partly elected board as a way to overcome that. "Parents now have no seat at the table," she said.

Zirkin also said the county's entirely appointed school board is "too far removed from the parents."

"There are problems with both systems. Fully elected can become overpolitical, and fully appointed can become too aloof," he said.

Opponents of Glenn's bill say the city's recent progress could be jeopardized by any radical change. They are concerned, too, that an elected school board might attempt to thwart schools CEO Andrés Alonso and that would cause him to leave.

Del. Samuel I. Rosenberg, a Baltimore Democrat, said he recently decided to oppose Glenn's bill because he does not want to "jeopardize all of the achievements and improvements to the system."

He said he does "not want to do anything to risk losing Dr. Alonso."

Tom Wilcox, president of the Baltimore Community Foundation, made up of hundreds of philanthropic funds, said student achievement has increased, the school system is out of corrective action and the 26-year-old special-education lawsuit against the city school system is ending.

"We believe the current system is working well, and it has paid off in significant ways," Wilcox said. "Baltimore and its young people would be ill served by changing course midstream."

Urban school systems that have made the most progress around the country, he said, are controlled either by mayors or by appointed boards rather than elected boards.

Alonso, who has been praised for bringing needed change to the city schools, said when he arrived he would leave if he was not given a free hand.

When asked whether he would leave under a different board, Alonso said Thursday, "Much of the credit I've gotten should go to the board. It's all been about improving student outcomes. As long as I continue to run the district with a laserlike focus on what's good for kids, then I am here to stay. If the decisions become about other things, and that can happen with any kind of board, then I will not stay."

Board members in Baltimore County voted unanimously Tuesday night to oppose the elected school board bills. An elected board, some members said, would be dominated by people who had been elected by special interests.

Don Mohler, a spokesman for Smith, the county executive, said an elected board might also be less racially and ethnically diverse than it is today. The current board is made up of parents, former educators and businessmen, he said. "As you move to an elected board, then the board might be less representative of Baltimore County as a whole," he said.

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